George Novack

Matthew Josephson’s
The Politicos

(August/September 1938)

First Published: Originally published as A New Mirror in the Old Frame, New International, Volume IV Number 8, August 1938, pp.239-241, and The Two Party System, New International, Volume IV Number 9, September 1938, pp.273-276.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain:George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The Politicos
by Matthew Josephson
Harcourt, Brace and Company. New York, 1938. ix, 760 pp.

A New Mirror in the Old Frame

The radical ferment in the United States during the past decade has given rise to a new school of historical writing for the literary public of the left. In their general approach the biographers of this tendency have advanced a step beyond the “debunkers” whom they have superseded in popular favor, being far less preoccupied with the purely private sides of their subjects, their psychological quirks, sexual peccadilloes, and quaint characteristics, than with the socially significant aspects of their careers. Their works are written, that is to say, not during the reactionary 1920’s, but in the crisis-torn 1930’s, and under the intellectual influence, not of Freudianism, but of Marxism.

The influence of Marxist thought upon most of these authors has been extremely slight and casual, and, indeed, the majority has never professed to be Marxists. On the contrary, they condemn Marxism for its “one-sidedness”, for its obsolete Hegelian philosophy or its equally outmoded nineteenth-century economics, for its revolutionary proletarian politics, and, in general, for its unyielding scientific materialism. The hundred and one doctrines they present as improvements over orthodox Marxism are pot-pourris of notions thrown together from diverse sources, Marx, Weber, Sombart, Veblen, Beard, etc., in proportions varied to please the individual taste. These anti-Marxists, no less than the minority of self-avowed Marxists in this group borrow from the treasury of Marxist thought, as from everywhere else, only those elements suited to their momentary needs and petty bourgeois outlook, which they quote learnedly and plaster upon their works for radical decoration.

In revising past events and personalities, the writers of this school refrain from overstepping certain inviolable limits. They are bold—but not overbold; “radical” without being revolutionary. These limits are prescribed for them by their social outlook as petty bourgeois intellectuals, by their intellectual indolence, and by their reformist politics. If they often plumb deeper than their predecessors, they still do not touch the bottom of most historical problems but dangle between the surface and the depths at the mercy of conflicting currents.

Caution and intellectual confusion characterize their political thinking no less than their historical investigations. The purely retrospective character of their wisdom is most clearly shown in their present politics, which consists of New Dealism, Stalinism—and often an amalgam of both. Thus John Chamberlain, who in 1932 performed an autopsy upon the Progressive movement in Farewell to Reform, pronouncing it dead beyond recall, comes forward in 1938 to cheer for Roosevelt and the New Deal. Out-jingoing the Stalinists, Lewis Mumford suddenly forsakes his previsions of New Harmonies to beat the war drums for a jihad against the fascist powers.

Matthew Josephson, who stands with one foot in the Stalinist camp and the other in the liberal morass of the New Republic, is a virtuoso of this tendency. This biographer of Zola perceives no parallel to the Dreyfus case in the Moscow Trials and no identity between his hero and John Dewey. On the contrary, he emulates the reactionary French scribblers he once excoriated by lending his pen to cover up these frame-ups in the New Republic. Nor do his two fat volumes on the patriarchal relations between Big Business and the twin capitalist parties, and on the futility of late nineteenth-century reformism,[1] at all deter him from being well-disposed toward the Roosevelt regime and its left wing, the present avatars of these two tendencies.

These pseudo-radical intellectuals are no better than the Bourbons: they have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. However perspicacious they may be in respect to the past, however bold in their criticism of their precursors, they are blind and timid as new-born kittens before the great problems of the present. Overwhelmed, disoriented, and unnerved by the prospective war and the onrushing social crisis, they are unwittingly taken into tow by conservative forces far stronger than themselves and involuntarily converted into accomplices of reaction. Likely at any moment to go astray in the tangled thickets of history, they are even less reliable guides amidst the mighty contending forces of today.

Matthew Josephson’s latest production, The Politicos, is an excellent specimen of the historical work of this school. Just as, in The Robber Barons, he presented the economic development of the United States from 1865 to 1896 in terms of its principal figures, so now he has aimed to interpret the political history of the same period. It is extremely hazardous to approach either history or politics in this manner. Its fruitfulness depends upon the measure of the author’s insight into the social struggles and class dynamics of the time and upon his ability to correlate the ideas, character, and conduct of his subjects to them.

Mr. Josephson best fulfills these requirements in his portrayals of the Republican and Democratic chieftains, Grant, Harrison, Cleveland and McKinley, who held the center of the national political stage, and Blaine, Conkling, Olney, W.C. Whitney and Mark Hanna, the stage-managers who directed them. He delineates their personal and political traits with commendable care and skill. He thoroughly demonstrates the double-dealing of these Presidential figureheads who publicly posed as servants of the people while privately promoting the interests of the plutocracy together with their own personal or factional ends.

They presided over a carnival of corruption unprecedented in American history, aptly characterized by V.L. Barrington as “The Great Barbecue”. Under the protecting wing of the government, the conquering army of spoilsmen overran the South like locusts, flung themselves with unleashed appetites upon the national resources, plundered the people, auctioned off or gave away lands, choice appointments, railroad charters, tariffs, and privileges of all kinds. The “Credit Mobilier” scandal in connection with the building of the Union Pacific railroad and the operations of the Whiskey Ring disclosed the intimate connections in these transactions between the highest officeholders and the capitalist interests.

By tracing the activities of the go-betweens of high and low degree in the administrations from Grant to McKinley, Josephson exposes the complicated, costly, and concealed machinery of transmission whereby the demands of the real rulers of the state, the captains of industry and finance, were impressed upon their political agents and translated into the law of the land. He shows the wheels within wheels of the administrative apparatus: the party dominating the government, the faction ruling the party, the boss or clique of bosses running the faction, and, by means of their control over the national conventions, nominating their candidates for President and naming cabinets.

How instructive a handbook for an aspiring capitalist politician! From these pages he could learn how patronage should be allotted, how privileges must be marketed, and what kind of deals must be made to oil the party machinery and keep it running smoothly. He can see how the big party bosses established regular business relations with the big capitalist bosses, who acted as executive heads for their class. He can find out how a cabal of Senators can exercise a dictatorship over Congress, opening or closing the sluices of legislation as they ordain.

The wealth of material Josephson has assembled on the personnel and methods of operation of the capitalist parties constitute the valuable parts of his work. Here we see bourgeois democracy, not in an unrealizable version begotten in some idealist’s imagination, but as it actually existed in the heyday of its development in the United States, when it had freshly issued from a revolutionary purging. What a repulsive spectacle of duplicity, demagogy, and venality is unrolled before our eyes! The final judgment upon the politics of this period, and upon this form of capitalist domination in general, was uttered by “Dollar Mark” Hanna, the Kingfish of the Big Bosses: “All questions of government in a democracy are questions of money.”

The Dictatorship of the Radical Bourgeoisie

The serious shortcomings of The Politicos arise from Mr. Josephson’s theoretical limitations, which prevent him from perceiving the basic historical tendencies at work from 1865 to 1896. This epoch breaks into separate parts. The first, which extended from the close of the Civil War to Hayes’ assumption of power in 1877, belonged to the final chapters in the development of the Second American Revolution inaugurated by the Civil War. The political essence of this period, which marked the culmination of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, consisted in the direct dictatorship of the triumphant Northern bourgeoisie over the conquered South and thereby over the rest of the country. The instrument for the exercise of this dictatorship was the Republican party; its wielders the Radical faction. Josephson, who tends to identify the Revolution with the Civil War by itself, does not comprehend the real disposition of the social forces in conflict during this period or the significance of their political battles. He is consequently unable to answer the key questions posed by the political developments of the time.

His theoretical helplessness is most clearly manifested in his treatment of the conflict between President Johnson and the Republican Radicals. He views this crucial contest as a purely administrative matter in the same bureaucratic way as contemporary liberals interpret the struggle between Roosevelt and Congress. According to him, it was but another episode in the recurrent struggle between a popular, independent, and democratic executive and a partisan, scheming, and autocratic Senatorial clique.

Josephson unmistakably, if indecisively, places himself on the side of Johnson, the “man of the people” and the “radical agrarian”. The main reason for his stand is not difficult to discern. Believing, in his liberal simplicity, that formal democracy must always be on the progressive side, he must be for Johnson, rather than the Radical advocates of military rule, congressional control, and dictatorship.

Yet Johnson, who proposed to revert to the political status quo before the Civil War, was counter-revolutionary compared to the Radical leaders, who aimed to monopolize their hard-won state power instead of sharing it with their vanquished foes. Josephson’s troubled perplexity in the face of this situation demonstrates that he has not yet attained the degree of historical insight possessed by the most resolute and far-sighted leaders of the radical bourgeoisie at that date. They were sagacious enough to recognize that their revolutionary conquests could be safeguarded and extended only by maintaining a dictatorship over the South, and audacious enough to enforce a program to that effect over all opposition. While the Radicals pushed forward along the revolutionary road until they had utterly annihilated their class enemy and cushioned their political positions against the inevitable recoil, Johnson and the faltering conciliators around him, leaning upon the reactionary sections of the petty bourgeoisie and upon the fallen slave oligarchy, wanted to stop short the revolution and welcome back the rebels. By placing himself at the head of the restorationist forces, Johnson, the formal democrat, was patently reactionary.

Josephson’s incapacity to distinguish between the basically counter-revolutionary rule of Johnson and the relatively progressive position of the Reconstructionists shows how shallow is his understanding of the Second American Revolution and how alien to Marxism is his entire outlook. He cannot reconcile, either in theory or in reality, the contradictory concepts of dictatorship and democracy, although the history of this very period demonstrates that under revolutionary conditions a dictatorship of the advanced class is the only serious way to guarantee the social gains acquired by bloody struggle.

At the same time the dictatorship of the radical bourgeoisie had its reactionary as well as its predominantly progressive side. While the radicals worked to complete the subjugation of their rivals on the right and directed their deadliest blows against them, they also strove to protect themselves and the material interests of the big bourgeoisie against their allies on the left flank, the discontented workers and farmers who instinctively struggled to carry forward the revolution along the lines of their own class interests. The capitalists needed the dictatorship to fight the counter-revolutionists on the one hand and the rebellious plebeians on the other. This dual function of the Radical regime, which flowed from the political and social necessities of the upper bourgeoisie, accounted for its contradictory character.

Josephson describes this dual character in the following paragraph:

The politicians in those stormy years of Reconstruction were as men afflicted with dual identity: they were literally Jekylls and Hydes. As Dr. Jekyll, with a generous impulse they emancipated Negro slaves, swept away the feudal landed order of the South; as Mr. Hyde, they deliberately delayed the recovery and restoration of the conquered states, whose economy languished during many years of disorder; imposed military rule; and established a network of Freedman’s bureaus and Carpetbag local governments which were subject to the central Republican Party Organization at Washington and paid tribute to the same. As Dr. Jekyll, they stirred the masses of voters to their support by use of a humane and libertarian ideology of a revolutionary American pattern; as Mr. Hyde, they planned and built coolly, at the height of deliberately invoked, turbulent electoral struggles and parliamentary storms, measures of high capitalist policy, to stand “not for a day, but for all time”; they worked to implant in the covenant of our society safeguards to property and capital which might hold against all future assaults.

Just as he cannot grasp the fact that the radical dictatorship was the dual shield of democracy, so Josephson is completely bewildered by the dual personality of the Radical politicians. In a word, he does not understand the dialectics of the situation. Since it lacks the dramatic values and picturesque color of the Republican regency, Josephson slights the history of the Democratic organization from 1864 to 1876. Yet the resurrection of the Democratic Party was not the least remarkable political phenomenon of the period. This party, which had been split in two by the revolutionary crisis and discredited by its policies during the war, rose from its ruins and returned to challenge the victor. Josephson offers no better explanation for the resurgence of the Democratic Party than the immortality of the two-party system. The profound regrouping of social forces that expressed themselves in the political realignments after the Civil War are left obscure and unregarded.

Finally, Josephson only partially appreciates the historical significance of the disputed Hayes-Tilden election of 1876. He correctly points out that the secret bargain between the Republican and Democratic chiefs sealed the reconciliation between the sundered ruling classes of the North and South over the prostrate bodies of the Negroes, the wage-workers, and poor farmers. But he fails to note that, by withdrawing the Federal troops from the South and permitting the carpet-bag governments to collapse, the Republicans relaxed their outright dictatorship and thereby terminated the last chapter of the revolution.

Having consolidated their conquests and securely entrenched themselves in power, menaced far more from the plebian left than from the planters on the right, the capitalist oligarchy was moved to restore “formal democracy” to the South. From then on, their reactionary dictatorship masked itself behind democratic processes, except in those instances of acute class conflict, when the Presidents called out Federal troops against striking workers. The edge of the dictatorship was turned almost entirely against the rebellious proletariat.

The Struggle Between the Big and Little Bourgeoisie

The political axis of the next twenty years from 1876 to 1896 revolved around the struggle of the plebian masses against the rule of the plutocracy. The rural petty bourgeoisie took full command of the parliamentary fight against the big bourgeoisie, leading the proletariat behind it. Their revolt expressed itself in the Greenback, Granger, Populist, Single-Tax, and finally in the Free-Silver movements.

For the first sixteen years of this period the political security of the big bourgeoisie at Washington remained unshaken. During this age of economic progress, they ruled indifferently through the Republican and Democratic parties without serious threat from the workers and farmers. Then the crisis of 1893 cut across this comparative calm, resulting in a speedy and sharp consolidation of the opposing forces.

In 1896 the plebian hosts rallied under the banner of the Democratic party and the leadership of Bryan to storm the citadel of monopoly capital. Their campaign was subsidized and supported by big mining interests. Bryan’s crusade against the Gold-Bugs was the high-watermark of the post-revolutionary struggle of the lesser bourgeoisie. Their failure to dispossess the direct representatives of Big Business from power underscored their political impotence and initiated their political decline.

This period properly ends, however, not with McKinley’s election, bought with Mark Hanna’s funds, but with the Spanish-American war. This inglorious adventure was the imperialist solution to the social crisis precipitated by the economic panic of 1893 and aggravated by the bitter contest of 1896. By arbitrarily cutting short his exposition at McKinley’s victory, Josephson indicates his incapacity to understand the stages of development and grasp the great turning points in the political history of the time.

The Two Party System

The political spokesmen for the plutocracy foster two ideas which help perpetuate their authority over the minds and lives of the American people. The first, which is the essence of democratic mythology, is that either one or both of the two capitalist parties have a classless character. The second is that the two-party system is the natural, inevitable, and only truly American mode of political struggle. The Democratic and Republican parties are given the same monopoly over political activity as CBS and NBC have acquired over radio broadcasting. The theoretical underpinning of The Politicos is constructed out of these two propositions which Josephson affirms in a special version of his own. The central thesis of his book is that “neither of the two great parties in the United States” was “a class party”, such as were common in Europe. They were competitive cartels of professional spoilsmen independent of all classes and primarily concerned with looking out for themselves and their political outfits. Only incidentally, as it were, did they also cater to the plutocracy or to the people.

By 1840, Josephson remarks, “the professional or ‘patronage’ party had been forged in America, had become part of the fabric of government itself, wholly unlike parties elsewhere which labored primarily for ‘class’ or ‘ideas’.” Further, “the historic American parties were not ‘credo’ parties, as Max Weber has defined them, parties representing definite doctrines and interests or faiths in a church, or a monarchical or traditional aristocratic caste principle, or a rational Liberal Capitalist progress; they now paralleled and competed with each other as purely patronage parties.”

This is an utterly superficial and one-sided appraisal of the bourgeois parties. While it is true that in the classic land of Big Business, politics itself became the biggest of Big Businesses, the two great political firms that contended for possession of the enormous privileges and prizes of office were no more independent of capitalist interest and control than are the two mammoth broadcasting corporations. On the contrary, they vied with each other to render superior service to their employers.

The all-important point is that the big business of politics was at one and the same time the politics of Big Business. This applied in petty matters as well as in the most vital affairs, whether it was a question of assigning a local postmastership, fixing tariffs or declaring war. The real relations between the party Bosses and the capitalist moguls were similar to those between an agent and his principal. While executing the orders of their employer and attending to their affairs, the agents, who were powers in their own right, did not hesitate to pocket whatever they could for themselves and their associates. The ruling caste was willing to wink at these practices, even encourage them, so long as they were not too costly or did not create a public scandal.

Josephson’s theory, however, not only denies this intimate relationship but even inverts it. According to his conception, it was not the capitalists but the party bosses, not the big bourgeoisie but the party which was politically paramount. Josephson invests this thesis with a semblance of plausibility by drawing a whole series of incorrect conclusions from a number of indisputable but isolated facts of a secondary order. From the relative autonomy of the party organizations, he deduces their absolute independence of the ruling caste; from the episodic antagonisms of particular bourgeois politicians to certain demands, members, or segments of the capitalist oligarchy, he deduces a fundamental opposition between them.

The Relations Between Party and Class

Throughout his work Josephson displays a very meager understanding of the interrelations between political parties and the class forces they represent. These relations are not at all simple, uniform, or unvarying but extremely complicated, many-sided, and shifting. In the first place, it is impossible for any bourgeois party to present itself to the electorate as such. The capitalist exploiters constitute only a tiny fragment of the nation; their interests constantly conflict with those of the producing masses, generating class antagonisms at every step. They can conquer power and maintain it only through the exercise of fraud, trickery, and, when necessary, by main force. Their political representatives in a democratic state are therefore constrained to pass themselves off as servants of the people and to mask their real designs behind empty promises and deceitful phrases. The official actions of these agents negate their democratic pretensions time and again. Opportunism, demagogy, dupery, and betrayal are the hallmarks of every bourgeois party.

Since the masses sooner or later discover their betrayal and turn against the party they have placed in power, the ruling class must keep another political organization in reserve to throw into the breach. Hence the necessity for the two-party system. The Democratic and Republican Parties share the task of enforcing the domination of big capital over the people. From the social standpoint, the differences between them are negligible.

The apparent impartiality and independence of the twin parties and their leaders is an indispensable element in the mechanics of deception whereby the rich tyrannize over the lesser orders of the people. In affirming the classless character of the capitalist parties, Josephson shows himself to be no less enthralled by this fiction than the most ignorant worker. The worker, however, has had no opportunities to know better.

In the second place, no party can directly and immediately represent an entire class, however great a majority of suffrage it enjoys at any given moment. Intra-party controversies and splits, no less than inter-party conflicts, reflect the divergences between the component parts of a class as well as the opposing interests of different classes, which constituted the coalition parties of the bourgeoisie.

A new party, made up of the most conscious and advanced members of a class, frequently comes into violent collision with the more backward sections of the same class. This was true of the Republican Party throughout the Second American Revolution.

Thus Josephson’s contention that “the ruling party often vexed and disappointed the capitalists as in the impeachment action itself, in its ‘excesses’, or pursuit of its special ends”, does not at all demonstrate the supra-class position of the Radical Republicans. It goes to prove that they were more intransigent and clear-sighted defenders of Northern capitalism than many hesitant and conservative capitalists.

Finally, the independence of any party from the social forces it represents is always relative and often restricted within narrow limits. However long or short the tether, however tightly it was drawn at any given moment, the leadership of both parties was tied to the stake of the plutocracy. Whenever important individuals or tendencies began to assert themselves at the expense of the capitalist rulers or in opposition to their interests, counter-movements inevitably arose to bring them to heel, cast them out, or crush them. Josephson reports a hundred instances of this process in his book. Wherever the spoilsmen grabbed too much or too openly, they evoked Civil Service or reform movements, initiated or supported by those bourgeois groups demanding honest, cheap, or more efficient administration of their affairs.

The sovereignty of the Capitalists stands out in bold relief in many individual cases described by Josephson. When Johnson dared oppose the Radicals, he was fought, impeached, and then discarded. When his successor Grant endeavored to assert his independence of the Senatorial Cabal, he was quickly humbled and converted into a docile tool of the plutocracy. J.P. Morgan broke Cleveland’s resistance to his financial policies after months of struggle and bent the President to his will.

Even more instructive is the example of Altgeld, recently resurrected as a liberal hero. Those who recall his pardon of the Chicago Anarchists conveniently ignore the cause and outcome of his controversy with President Cleveland during the railroad strikes of 1894, led by Debs. The Governor of Illinois wanted to use the State Guard alone to break the strike; the President insisted on sending in Federal troops as well. Their quarrel amounted to a jurisdictional dispute as to which was to have the honor of suppressing the strike. Both state and federal troops were finally used. Thus the radical petty-bourgeois leader vied with the conservative commander of the big bourgeoisie in protecting the interests of the possessing classes against the demands of labor.

The Consolidation of the Two-Party System

After annihilating the slavocracy, the reigning representatives of the big bourgeoisie set about to reinforce their supremacy. While the masters of capital were concentrating the principal means of production in their hands and extending their domination over ever-larger sectors of the national economy, their political agents were seizing the controlling levers of the state apparatus in the towns, cities, states, and federal government. The simultaneous growth of monopolies in the fields of economics and politics was part and parcel of the same process of the consolidation of capitalist rule.

The two major parties became the political counterparts of the capitalist trusts. Functioning as the right and left arms of the big bourgeoisie, the Republican and Democratic Parties exercised a de facto monopoly over political life. The masses of the people were more and more excluded from direct participation and control over the administration of public affairs. The capitalist politicians did not attain this happy result at one stroke nor without violent struggle within the two parties and within the nation. Overriding all opposition, outwitting some, crushing others, bribing still a third, they succeeded in thoroughly domesticating both organizations until the crisis of 1896.

The two-party system of capitalist rule was the most characteristic product of the political reaction following the great upheaval of the Civil War. This mechanism enabled the plutocracy to maintain its power undisturbed during an epoch of relatively peaceful parliamentary struggle.

The managers of the two parties had two main functions to perform in defense of the bourgeois regime. First of all, they had to safeguard the bourgeois parties against the infiltration of dangerous influences emanating from the demands of the masses. In addition, they had to head off any independent mass movement which jeopardized the two-party system and therewith the domination of the plutocracy.

The monopoly of the two great political corporations was accompanied by the ruthless expropriation of political power from the lower classes, the strangling of their independent political enterprises, their more intensive exploitation in the interests of the commanding clique. This state of political affairs combined with the periodic economic crises generated the series of popular revolts culminating in the campaign of 1896. We can discern two dominant tendencies in the political turmoil of the times: on one side, the two major parties, despite their secondary differences, cooperating in promoting the ascendancy and interests of the big bourgeoisie; on the opposite side, various popular movements which welled forth from the lower classes in their attempts to reverse the process of capitalist consolidation and to assert their own demands in opposition.

Although these two tendencies were of unequal strength, corresponding to the disparities in the social weight and influence of the farmers and workers as against their oppressors, it was the struggles between these two camps, and not the secondary and largely sham battles between the two capitalist parties, that constitute the socially significant struggles of the epoch. Bourgeois historians, however, focus their spotlight upon the contests of the monopolist parties which crowd the foreground of the political arena, leaving obscure the popular protest movements which agitated in the background and emerged into national prominence only on critical occasions. Josephson has not freed himself from this preoccupation. While The Politicos presents an illuminating picture of the top side of American politics revolving around the inner life of the plutocratic parties and their struggles for hegemony, it systematically slights the underside of the political life of the same period.

Josephson devotes attention to the third party movements expressing the aspirations of the plebian orders and embodying their efforts to emancipate themselves from bourgeois tutelage, only as they affected, approach, or merge into the channels of the two-party system. He shows himself to be considerably more enslaved by bourgeois standards of political importance, and a far less independent, critical, and astute historian of post-Civil War political life than the evangelical liberal, V. L. Barrington, who, for all his deficiencies, is keenly conscious of major issues and alignments.

This is not an accidental error on Josephson’s part but an offshoot of his theoretical outlook. He draws the same fundamental conclusions from the political experiences of the post-war epoch as other bourgeois historians. American politics moves in a bipartisan orbit; third-party movements are short-lived aberrations from the norm, predestined to disappear or to be absorbed into new two-party alignments; state power oscillates between the Ins and Outs in a process as recurrent and inevitable as the tides.

Josephson even regards the two-party regime as “a distinct and enduring” contribution of American statecraft to “realistic social thought”, although the American bourgeoisie borrowed this system from the British ruling class, who fixed the pattern of parliamentary government for the rest of the Western World. Superficially considered, American politics since the Civil War tends to confirm these conclusions. Despite their promising beginnings, none of the third party movements developed into an independent and durable national organization, let alone succeeding in uncrowning the plutocracy; even the mighty Populist flood, with its millions of voters and followers, was sucked into the channels of the two-party system in 1896 where it ebbed away into nothingness after its defeat; the two-power system has remained intact and triumphant until today.

These third party movements were to be sure chiefly responsible for whatever political progress was accomplished during this period. Their militancy kept alive the spark of revolt against the existing order. They provided the experimental laboratories in which the creative social forces worked out their formulas of reform. These programs of reforms fertilized the otherwise barren soil which their activities furrowed. Some of these minor reforms even found partial fruition through the two major parties. Exerting pressure upon their left flanks, the third party movements pushed the monopolist parties forward step by step, exacting concessions from them. Nevertheless the fact remains that none of the third-party movements blossomed into a full-blown national party, on a par with the two big bourgeois organizations.

The situation appears in a different light, however, upon a critical examination of the causes and conditions of their failure.

First, the aims, programs, composition, and leadership of these movements were almost wholly middle-class in character. The heterogeneous nature of the middle-classes hindered them from welding together their own class forces in a permanent organization; their interests as small property-owners and commodity producers set them at odds with the industrial workers; a fundamental community of interests deterred them from conducting an intransigent or revolutionary struggle against their blood brothers, the big property owners.

Second, these petty-bourgeois protest movements lacked the stamina, solidity, and stability to weather boom periods. Blazing up during economic crisis, they died down during the subsequent upswing. The upper strata of the middle classes were satisfied with higher prices or petty reforms; the masses sank back into political passivity.

Third, the history of the third party movements is a sorry record of the betrayal of the plebian masses by their leadership. This leadership was largely made up of careerist politicians or representatives of the upper middle-classes, who were usually ready to make unprincipled deals with the managers of the two big parties; to forsake their principles and the interests of their followers for a few formal concessions or promises; to quit the building of an independent movement for the sake of a cheap and easy accession to office. An almost comic example of this was the fiasco of the Liberal Reform movement of 1872, which, originating in revulsion against the degeneracy of the Republican Stalwarts, ended by nominating Horace Greeley as a joint candidate with the Democrats in a presidential convention manipulated by wire-pulling, ruled by secret diplomacy, and consummated in an unprincipled deal that totally demoralized the movement and disheartened its sympathizers. Even more striking was the decision of the Populist Party in 1896 to abandon its identity and support Bryan, the Democratic nominee. Finally, the mesmerizing effect of the two-party system and the activities of the capitalist politicians must be taken into account. They threw their full weight against every sign of independent political action reflecting mass discontent, crushing wherever they could not capture or head off the nascent movement of rebellion.

The sole social force capable of forging and leading a strong, stable, and independent movement against the plutocracy, the proletariat, was too immature to undertake that task. As a rule, the industrial workers remained politically subservient to bourgeois interests and influence; they limited their field of struggle to the economic arena; their trade-union leaders adhered to the policy of begging favors from the two parties as the price of their allegiance; the left wing labor and socialist parties remained insignificant sects.

The two-party system was therefore perfected under certain specific social, economic, and political conditions and its perpetuation depends upon the continuation of these conditions.

Prospects of the Two-Party System

The two-party regime, however, is no more eternal than the bourgeois democracy it upholds. Its stability is guaranteed only by the relative stability of the social relations within the nation.

The two-party system consolidated itself when American capitalism was in the ascendant; when the masters of capital sat securely in the saddle; when the proletariat was weak, disorganized, divided, and unconscious; when the direction of political mass movements fell to the middle-classes. There was plenty of room for class accommodation; ample means for concessions; opportunities and necessities for class reconciliation. Consequently, the political equilibrium was each time restored after it had been upset by severe class conflicts.

These circumstances either no longer prevail or are tending to disappear. American capitalism is on the downgrade; the proletariat is powerful, well-organized, militant; the capitalists are in a quandary; the middle classes are nervous and restless. All the antagonisms that slumber in the depths of American society are being awakened and fanned to a flame by the chronic social crisis. The forces formerly confined within the framework of the two-party system are pounding against its walls, cracking it in a hundred places. The sharpening class conflicts can no longer be regulated inside the old political setup. The vanguard of the contending forces are straining to break the bonds which tie them to the old parties and to forge new instruments of struggle better adapted to the new situation.

While the trend toward new forms of political action and organization are common to all classes, the movement most fraught with significance for the future is the manifest urge of the organized labor to seek the road of independent political action. Skeptics, conservative-minded pedants, Stalinists, interested trade-union bureaucrats, and all those under the spell of traditional bourgeois prejudices point to the futility of third party movements in the past to discourage the workers from taking this new road and to keep them in the old ruts. Their historical arguments are based entirely upon conditions of a bygone day.

Viewed on an historical scale, American society and therewith American politics is today in a transitional period, emerging out of the old order into a pre-revolutionary crisis. This new period has its historical parallel, not in the post-revolutionary epoch following the Civil War, but in the period preceding it. “The irrepressible conflict” between the reactionary slaveholders and the progressive bourgeoisie has its contemporary analogy in the irrepressible conflict between the capitalist and working classes.

The class conflicts which then shook the social foundations of the Republic shattered all existing political formations. The Whigs and Democrats, which had, like the Republican and Democratic Parties, monopolized the political stage for decades in the service of the slave power, were pulverized by the blows delivered from within and from without by the contending forces. The turbulent times gave birth to various kinds of intermediate parties and movements: Free-soil, Know-Nothing, Liberty movements. The creators of the Republican Party collected the viable, progressive, and radical forces out of these new mass movements and out of the old parties to form a new national organization.

As the Abolitionists knew and declared, the Republican Party was not revolutionary in its principles, program, or leadership. It was a bourgeois reformist party aiming to alter the existing political system for the benefit of the big and little bourgeoisie, not to overthrow it. This did not prevent the slaveholders from regarding it as a revolutionary menace to their rule. From 1854 to 1860 the political atmosphere within the United States became totally transformed by the deepening social crisis. Six years after the launching of the Republican Party came its formal assumption of power, the rebellion of the slaveholders, civil war, and revolution. All this occurred as the result of objective social conditions, regardless of the will of the majority of the participants and contrary to their plans and intentions.

The national and international conditions of the class struggle are too radically different today for the forthcoming period to reproduce the pattern of pre-civil war days in any slavish manner. It is certain, however, that its revolutionary character and tendencies are considerably closer to the present situation and problems confronting the American people than are the conditions and concepts stemming from the post-Civil War era of capitalist consolidation and reaction.

Matthew Josephson and his school operate almost exclusively with ideas derived from the conditions of the post-revolutionary period and tacitly based upon a continuation of them. Their minds and writings are permeated with the same spirit of adaptation to the reigning order as their politics. A resurgent labor movement struggling to free itself from capitalist control must first cast off the obsolete prejudices inherited from its past enslavement. For a thoroughgoing critical revision of such antiquated ideas, the advanced intellectual representatives of labor among the rising generation will have to look elsewhere than in the pages of The Politicos .


[1] Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901, New York : Harcourt, Brace, 1934, and The politicos, 1865-1896, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1938.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006