Hal Draper


Third-Party Trends

Liberal-Labor Coalition Versus Labor Party

(March 1947)

From New International, Vol.13 No.3, March 1947, pp.75-79.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The trend toward a third party has taken on a new life in American politics such as it has not had for nearly a quarter of a century. To be exact, since the elder Robert La Follette polled five million votes against Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis in 1924.

This term “third party” is used here with its generally understood sense in liberal, radical and also Marxist circles: a third party with some pretension to liberalism or progressivism within the framework of capitalist ideology – a liberal third capitalist party.

Third-party talk today has attained the status of a recognized realistic factor in discussions of immediate political perspectives. Over a year ago, the Wall Street Journal front-paged a story which saw a third party in the 1948 elections (but, it said, no possibility of national victory before 1952!). The dates are previous, but the fact of such a prediction is itself interesting. Naturally most of the speculation centers about the future of the PAC. But, outside the framework of the PAC, two forces have already organized to push a third party. Pint, a capsule sketch of these.

The Third-Party Advocates

One is the Communist Party and the periphery in the labor movement which it influences. It is all-out for a third party. A year ago, its No.2 man, Eugene Dennis, set the time for organizational realization as “some time early in ’47.” But the Conference of Progressives held in Chicago (PAC, Wallace, etc.) refused to split with the Democrats as yet. The Stalinists have therefore set a new goal: a third party by the time of the Democratic nominating convention of 1948. An editorial in the December Political Affairs concedes that “it can come into being only when the forces represented at the Chicago Conference of Progressives, or at least a majority of those represented there, become convinced of its necessity and are ready to build it.” Another article speaks of realizing the perspective “at the earliest possible date.” The CP is interested in seeing a third party in actual existence by convention time mainly in order to hold it as a club over the Democratic nominators.

While the Stalinists speak of a “broad third party” and specifically have in mind the coalition of liberals, “progressive” politicians and labor leaders which came together at the Chicago conference, they are not behind-hand in emphasizing the role of labor in this coalition. Foster’s pamphlet, Problems of Organized Labor Today, reiterates that this broad “people’s party” must be “based on the trade unions.... The new party must have the trade unions as its decisive, leading force.” But this formula, “a third party based on the trade unions,” is not the same as a labor party. What it does mean we shall see later. As Foster himself puts the question:

The times are too argent to embark upon a slow, many years long, brick by brick process of party building, such as was used to organise the British Labor Party ... Thus, imperatively, in forming the new party ways must be found to maintain the closest working together of all progressive forces in the old parties, including those not yet convinced of the necessity or possibility of building such a party.

It is the same as the formula put forward by Harold J. Laski in The Nation: to “make organized labor the core of a progressive alliance round which can gather all” who oppose “a retreat from the plane to which Mr. Roosevelt had raised the issues” (Nov. 23, 1946).

The other force is an aggregation with some important labor backing, formed last April under the name of the National Educational Committee for a New Party. It is the anti-Stalinist wing of the active third-partyites. It is headed by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Sleeping Car Porters. Tied in with it are: President David Dubinsky of the Ladies’ Garment Workers; the CIO-UAW’s Walter Reuther; the Liberal Party of New York State; leaders of the Michigan Commonwealth Federation, like Hammond; whatever the old Socialist Party has in the labor movement; and such individuals as John Dewey, who is honorary chairman, and Lewis Corey, who is research director.

Its declaration of principles clearly enough indicates its aim as a third party of liberal capitalism, which will seek to preserve the “liberal democratic way of life” through a limited amount of government operation aimed at monopoly, in the interests of “all useful functional groups,” under which heading labor is included; and about ten times as much space is used in stressing the defense of “free private enterprise” and the revitalization of “small business man” as is devoted to the sub-section dealing with labor’s interests. Its foreign policy is also crystal-clear: only praise, without a syllable of criticism, of the international role and policy of America and the British Empire, with even a laudatory word thrown in for French and Dutch imperialism. “But while capitalist imperialism is being liquidated, a new imperialism is being forged by Russian expansionism ...” etc. – that is, thoroughly unqualified ideological preparation for support of the next war by western imperialism against Stalinist imperialism. All clinched by the final peroration to “Men and women of good will everywhere!” to recapture the American dream.

The PAC-Progressive Coalition

Both the CIO-PAC and the National Citizens’ PAC have thus far carefully denied any intention “at this time” to form a third party. The qualification “at this time” is Philip Murray’s. Frank Kingdon, chairman of the NCPAC, expressed the official view over a year ago as follows: “Don’t go dreaming about a third party that can’t be organized right now. In twenty states we couldn’t organize at all. We may move toward a third party, but what we have to do now is organize independent voters.”

Outside labor’s ranks, the Wallace-Pepper wing of the Democrats declare their determination to “reform” the party and reject any thought of a split (at this time). They talk in terms of uniting New Deal Democrats and liberal Republicans in a reshuffling of forces within the two-party system. But since the capture of the Truman-Bilbo-Hague machine by the Little Pink Ridinghoods is recognized by most observers as only slightly less difficult than overthrowing capitalism, the question of what the Wallaces will find themselves doing in ’48, ’50 or ’52 is not downed.

The most serious incubator of the potential third-party coalition is the Progressive Conference already referred to. Its composition includes: the CIO-PAC; the NCPAC; the Independent Citizens’ Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions – most Stalinized outfit of the lot and recently merged with the NCPAC to form the Progressive Citizens of America; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, represented by Walter White; the National Farmers Union, by James Patton; and a brace of New Dealers – Wallace, Pepper, Morgenthau, ex-Gov. Elmer Benson, La Guardia, etc.

Thus far, of course, the line of the conference has been its least common denominator: the perspective of organizing progressive caucuses in both parties on a general New Deal program. But the door was carefully left open for third-party action in the future. This is due only partly to Stalinist influence. Two other effective factors were: the possible value of such ambiguity for blackmail purposes against the Democratic leaders; and certainly also, simply the realities of the political situation which soon or eventually may make third-party action the only alternative to complete capitulation by the self-styled progressives in the Democratic blind alley.

If we put together the elements so far enumerated (throw in some others like Stalinist-influenced AFL locals and the American Labor Party), we get a fairly formidable combination which seems to be heading in the direction of an eventual third-party movement.

There are two things which should be noted first about this phenomenon.

The Ebb of Labor-Partyism

While the trend toward a third party of liberal capitalism is at a new peak inside and outside labor’s ranks, labor-party talk is at a new low ebb. We will consider later the present meaning of the traditional dichotomy between these two labels; but as far as the naked eye can see, the above statement is an indisputable but interesting accompaniment of the one which opened this article.

An obvious caution is in order here. It is illustrated by the speech which David Dubinsky made in the middle of last year to a trade union convention, calling for a new party. In so doing, he used the words “a national labor party,” and this phrase even got into some of the newspaper heads topping the reported item. It sounded to the read-and-run scanner as if the president of a great international were calling for a labor party. Very laudably, Labor Action was careful to correct this misunderstanding. Dubinsky used “third party” quite interchangeably and more often in the same speech; and, as Labor Action pointed out, the party which he heads (the Liberal Party) is the kind of party he means by both labels: a third capitalist party.

The same point is illustrated by some of the leaders of the .Michigan Commonwealth Federation who, at least in the recent past if not more currently, did not let the terminological combination “labor party” stick in their throats while they went ahead to build the MCF as a third capitalist party, statewide model.

There is, in fact, not a single influential labor figure or trade union body in this country that is for a labor party, in any sense wherein it differs from a third capitalist party. Of course, it is perfectly true that the tops of the labor movement are not necessarily faithful reflection of rank-and-file sentiment, and also true that rank-and-file sentiment will grow in favor of breaking with capitalist politics in one form or another. But today with the floodtide of third-partyism running, labor-partyism is at low.

This ought to be understood by comparison with what happened in 1924, which, we said, was the previous high point of the third-party movement. It was also and equally a high point of the labor-party movement, headed by the top leaden of the Chicago trade unions. What happened was that this labor-party surge was derailed, captured and taken in tow by the third-party movement behind La Follette. The whole point is that at the present juncture, there is no labor-party movement even to be derailed by the third-partyites.

The picture is further pointed up by the situation in the radical sector of labor. While the Communist Party itself is neither socialist nor working class in character, its policies have a big effect upon the orientation and action of the largest bloc of radical workers; and we have already pointed out that this weight is being swung in favor of a third party and against a labor party. This leaves the Socialist Party, and it is worth a quick glance. Not because its policies have any important effect on what is happening or will happen, but precisely for the opposite reason: because it is a wisp of straw in the wind, and there is a wind blowing.

The SP has been in favor of a labor party since 1922, but at its last national convention, even it abandoned the labor-party standard to plump for a third party – or, in its phraseology, “a new mass party” based on “a coalition of popular forces.” The resolution embodying this turn is an amazing one even for the muddleheads in Norman Thomas’ entourage. With the exception of a parenthetical clause in a sentence recalling that since 1922 they have been “committed to electoral support of a labor or farmer party in America,” the text of this document performs the truly difficult feat of discussing the question without a single word of reference, direct or indirect, to the existence of the labor movement in the United States, to the PAC, the CIO, trade unions, the working class, or any reasonable facsimile thereof. Indeed, the pre-convention spokesman for their document rather expressed the FEAR that the new party might fall under the control of its “trade union and farm organization affiliates.” It would be entertaining but digressive to discuss this SP mishmash further: we are interested here in one fact which emerges.

This fact is that, not only in the labor movement but also in the radical movement, the only organized force of any size in favor of a labor party is the Trotskyists – that is, those who look upon it as a step toward the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. By those who choose to do so, this may be interpreted from the silver-lining angle as a position of honor to be cherished; but we are concerned at the moment only with the fact that it is unprecedented in extent – and completely unexpected by the Trotskyist movement itself. In fact, it is downright disconcerting to read, in the resolution adopted by the majority of the 1944 convention of the Workers Party, that: “while the danger of ‘third-partyism’ undoubtedly threatens the incipient labor party, it has neither the strength nor the prospects it had twenty years ago.”

Is a Third Party Viable Today?

What does this unprecedented and unexpected (unexpected by the majority of the Trotskyist movement) phenomenon mean? To answer this question, we must examine the second notable feature of the current third-party trend.

There have, of course, been quite a number of third-party movements in the history of American politics. Naturally, therefore, the present resurgence of third-party talk has been accompanied by a good deal of delving into political history for the lessons to be drawn regarding present perspectives. There is the long line of precedents – Populism, Bull Moose, the Farmer-Labor parties of the midwest states, the Wisconsin Progressive Party, the experiences of the Non-Partisan League, and so on. And from it all, the “progressive” politicians and labor leaders of the PAC have come up with an historical conclusion. It is: Third parties have always failed.

Writing in last May’s Scholastic, the reputable, historian Henry Steele Commager brings out the same distillation from his vast store of erudition as do Wallace and Murray: “Perhaps the most interesting thing about the American party system is that there has never been a successful third party. Or, we might say, no third party has ever been successful at the polls.” The only sense in which a third party has ever been successful is by forcing one of the old parties to adopt its program in order to defeat it. In this sense, “The success of the third party leads to political suicide.”

Whereupon the advocates of third-partyism argue: How about the Republican Party? Didn’t it first arise as a third party? And we are coming to the same kind of period of disintegration and reshuffling of party lines that characterized the 1850s and produced the matrix in which a new major party was born.

It would not be unrewarding to follow this argument through, although not merely in order to discover an historical precedent. But it is much more important to point immediately to the basic difference between all these third parties (which, truly enough, have failed and disappeared since the-Civil War) and the third party which is in the egg today. For there is a basic difference, which has to be the starting point for any serious thought about the third-party and laborite politics of the present. The third party which looms for us is a new type of third party.

The central difference lies in that which comes first to the mind of both the practical politician and the social analyst: its mass base.

Ever since the Civil War up to recently, the mass base of every third party or third-party movement of any significance has been predominantly agrarian and middle-class. Its support came largely from the farm areas of the Midwest. The labor movement was more backward, numerically and ideologically, and its social weight in the country far less than it is today. This is most obvious with respect to the Greenbacker, Granger and Populist movements of the end of the 19th century. It was also true of the Farmer-Labor Party and the Non-Partisan League, which were strong especially in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Idaho and Montana from 1915 to 1923. While it is still true in the 1922-24 flare-up of labor-progressive political action, the transition is visible. Here for the first and last time in its history, even the Executive Council of the AFL endorsed the La Follette-Wheeler ticket, and a respectable list of trade unions either participated in the convention which nominated La Follette or endorsed him. But in the movement itself the labor organizations tail-ended; and in the voting, the bulk of La Follette’s strength came from the same largely agrarian states which the Non-Partisan League had cultivated. He carried only Wisconsin and ran second in states like Minnesota, the Dakotas, Idaho, Iowa, Montana and five others – not one industrial state. But, again symptomatic of the transition, he did poll a good vote in some large cities.

The present third-party movement, potential and actual, is a social animal of a different species. Its heart and most of its limbs are in the organized labor movement. Without the CIO and its PAC, it would be nothing, would not indeed exist. Its mass base is working class, urban, industrial.

Even its main non-labor periphery – the NCPAC – was created by the CIO. The other wing of the third-party movement, the Randolph-Dubinsky NECNP, is equally labor in complexion. We repeat that we are here talking about the mass base of the movement. The role of the Wallaces and Peppers is thereby underlined. Not only are they generals without an army – there is not a La Follette nor even an A.C. Townley among them – but the only numbers they can hope to organize as a force behind them, whether inside or outside the Democratic Party, are the numbers of organized labor. They know this better than anyone else.

The Laborite Third Party of Today

If this is not understood, then the fate of La Follette’s Wisconsin Progressive Party only last March would be a mystery. For here, in a period when third-partyism is booming, the last flicker of the old third-party movement gives up the ghost! In convention assembled, the La Follette party voted to disband amid an atmosphere of gloom, and the bulk of it went home to the GOP (to build a “left wing,” of course, à la Stassen). It was completely played out. Outside of a few die-hards who wanted to keep going as is, the main alternative voted on was – to join the Democrats instead. Truly, this old type third party “has neither the strength nor the prospects it had twenty years ago.” But to apply this summary to the real third-partyism of today shows unawareness of what goes on.

To see what is happening, all we have to do is glance across the lake from Wisconsin to Michigan. In the former state a third party died. In the latter state a third party arose while the other disintegrated – the Michigan Commonwealth Federation, based on the masses of organized labor, especially the UAW. The viability of the present MCF even as a third party is not material; that it points to the only viable trend is unmistakable. The difference between the MCF and the Wisconsin PP is the difference between the old and the new third party. A corollary is that those who hailed the MCF as the harbinger of a revived Independent Labor Party movement have been doomed to as cruel disappointment as the few die-hards in the Wisconsin PP who thought the old road was still passable. Both have not read the signs.

Far from having neither strength nor prospects, the new laborite third-party movement need not be overwhelmed by the dire predictions of professors and progressive politicians that third-partyism is doomed to failure. The historical precedents which Commager pointed to since the Civil War were the political efforts of class strata (middle class) which were being ground away between the upper and nether millstones of capital and labor. These class strata were indeed doomed to failure – that is, their social weight in the country and therefore in politics was indeed fated to fall away. The new third-party movement based on the urban, industrial population – and in class terms, on the voting strength of the working class – has a future.

We have pointed out that those Marxists who discounted the prospects of third-partyism have been as far off the beam as those others, like Professor Commager, who regard the existing two-party system as eternal. For the latter, third parties are counted out by the strength of the two-party system. For the former, they are counted out by the “inevitable” trend toward an independent labor party. Our point has been so far that both have viewed today’s third-partyism as a mere repetition rather than as a new phenomenon. Let us now take another look at this new type of laborite third party, particularly as it impinges on the expected inevitability of an independent labor party.

In the dynamic class context of American capitalist society today, both of these traditional categories [third party and labor party] are pushed an each other’s direction, and tend to be telescoped into a fused political form.

No serious liberal-capitalist third party can arise in this country today without a heavy labor base and decisive labor alliances. The important third-party movements of the era now gone arose on the basis of the farmers and lower middle-class predominantly. Today, with the vastly increased social weight of the working class, it can arise only with the labor-liberals standing in their shoes.

Conversely, in the 19th century, when an independent labor fight to wrest reforms from a lustier capitalism was possible without calling into question the very stability of capitalism itself, reformist labor leaders could aim at organizing labor’s independent strength without running headlong against their own basic capitalistic convictions. Not so today, when the greater explosiveness of labor class-consciousness and the more delicate equilibrium of capitalism make really independent class organization too greatly fraught with implications from which they must turn back.

Thus the concept “third party” and “labor party,” each from its own internal compulsions under the conditions of contemporary capitalism, have converged into a third party of a modified type. It might be called a labor third party. It is the liberal third party of today. It is the labor party of today.

Although the above was written in 1944 (by the present writer), it already indicates the essential character of what has now become more clearly visible to the naked eye. It may be summarized in the form of three propositions:

  1. A third party which arises under today’s conditions cannot be the same as a third party of the past – it must be based on the trade unions, if it is to be a serious movement.
  2. A labor party which arises under today’s conditions cannot be the same as the British Labor Party in its heyday – it cannot play an independent class role in politics.
  3. These two political forms, traditionally counterposed to each other, today are synthesized into a new unity – the laborite third party, which living reality displays to us in the process of becoming.

Third-Party Variants

A discussion of new social phenomena always runs the risk of terminological difficulties. (Terminology is like leadership: you can’t do without it, but it is advisable to keep a sharp eye . out.) The very terms “third party” and “labor party” were invented for other circumstances. One may say, for example: “If this budding third party must be based on labor, then to all intents and purposes it is – or will be – a labor party, and there is no use quibbling over the term.”

Quite permissible indeed, terminologically speaking. What is in question is not the permissibility of the term but the applicability of its historical connotations. Our purpose is not at all to categorically interdict this label for the new party formation if and when it comes. The purpose is rather to point out precisely its newness as a type of political formation. Which means that the Marxist analyst is thereby requested to question the fixed idea that anything resembling a labor party in this country will be the analogue, this side of the ocean, of the British Labor Party in its progressive days – that is, that such a party based on the trade unions as can come into being here will necessarily do for American labor what the BLP once did for British labor.

Let us take three variant possibilities for the future development of the present third-party movement.

  1. The PAC decides to turn itself into an independent party – unites with Wallace, Pepper et al, the next day or the next month, on a liberal-New Deal program – and runs a few independent candidates for offices like city council and state legislature while it supports “progressive” capitalist politicians (who may or may not be also adherents of this PAC party) for most higher offices ... What do we have?
  2. Wallace, Pepper (the names are symbols) split off from the Democratic machine, and form a new party – which the PAC thereupon supports in the same way as it supports the existing parties now, and inevitably even gains a certain amount of influence in the councils of said party as well as the nomination of certain labor leaders as candidates ... What do we have?
  3. At another Conference of Progressives, with the coalition already noted present, the new party is launched by the assembled delegates and/or organizations ... What do we have?

Now it is one thing to state (as the majority of the Trotskyist movement enthusiastically does) that the formation of an independent labor party in this country – even with the present program of the PAC, even with the present leadership of labor at its head, etc. – would be a “progressive step forward” of epochal significance for labor and class-consciousness; and another to solemnly warn at the same time (as the majority of the Trotskyist movement does equally solemnly) that if a third party heads off this incipient labor party, it would be a great setback for labor and class-consciousness. But – which of the above three variants would be the epochal step forward, and which would be the setback?

Whether the new party comes into being by the initiative of (1) the PAC, (2) the progressives outside the labor movement, or (3) a coalition of the two in conference gathered – the last being by far the likeliest – it is most improbable that there would be any consequent difference in the most decisive respects. These are:

  1. Mass base;
  2. Program and policy;
  3. Character of candidate supported or independently run;
  4. The name assumed by the new outfit;
  5. Degree of control over the policies of the new party exercised by the rank and file of labor or even by the local organization of labor which are most susceptible to rank-and-file influence. The present character of PAC as a thoroughly bureaucratized top structure would not be lessened but accentuated by its transformation into an independent party and even more by its tie-up with a progressivist split from the old parties.

There are three possible differences which might result from the concreteness of its mode of formation:

  1. In personnel of officers and staff;
  2. In organizational form – that is, under the best variant, there is a possibility that the affiliation of trade unions en bloc will be permitted, though it is quite excluded that the new party would organize solely on the basis of organization affiliations after the model of the early British Labor Party; and
  3. In the extent of the initial illusions in the ranks of labor regarding the new outfit being their class party.

For a Positive Approach to Third-Partyism

On this basis, it is important to point out a practical conclusion which flows from this discussion.

That is: a change from the completely negative approach traditionally taken by the revolutionary movement toward the third-party question.

By a completely negative approach, we mean that the movement has felt that it need not concern itself with third-partyism any more than with any other capitalist party, A labor party? Yes, we had to react, even if we had opposed its formation; but a third party was a capitalist party and ipso facto outside the purview of our interests.

For example, before the Trotskyist movement in 1938 adopted the line of advocating a labor party, while it still held that the formation of a reformist party of labor could only be an obstacle to the radicalization of workers, it still was on record as favoring the critical participation of revolutionists in such a movement once it was in existence. Even if we felt that the new party formation was a mistake, still it was our job to be there where the masses were moving and to exert a revolutionary pressure against the strangulation of working-class militancy by a political labor bureaucracy super-added to the trade union bureaucracy.

If this applied to a labor party when we were against the formation of a labor party, it certainly applies to the third party which is a-borning, even though we are against the formation of any third party. It is one thing to advise against the creation of a third-party machine even if it is based on labor; it is quite another matter to stand aside from it if and when it takes on life.

As it is, our movement has never considered our attitude toward and relations with a third party or third-party movement, except to condemn it root and branch. But since the actual third-party movement is the laborite third party here analyzed, we may soon have to do so. And while it remains a liberal third party of capitalism, not the classical labor party of our wishes, its concrete characteristics and probable composition will demand a more positive approach than we have yet bestowed on anything which we decline to denominate a labor party.

Certainly we will not advocate the formation of such a party – indeed, for what it is worth, the majority of the movement may likely continue to counterpose the advocacy of an “independent, class, labor party” as a matter of propaganda – but we must be thoroughly prepared for critical participation as revolutionists in an organizationally-realized third-party movement based on the trade unions.

For this, not the classical labor-party pattern, is the road ahead through which the political development of the American working class will pass, and American Marxists may as well get used to the idea.


Last updated on 6.8.2005