George Novack

Third Parties in American Politics

Written: 1968
Source: International Socialist Review, Vol. 29, No. 3, May-June 1968, pp. 11-22.
Transcription/Editing: Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: David Walters
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005. This work is completely free to copy and distribute.

Deep disenchantment with the Democratic administration has stimulated great interest in alternatives to the major capitalist parties and given timeliness to a consideration of the role of third parties in American political history. Such a review would have to proceed from an analysis of the two-party system.

The undertaking is made difficult by the mystical aura enveloping this political structure. Most citizens place the two-party tradition in the same hallowed category as baseball, apple pie and corruption in high places. It is considered to be the normal, inevitable mode of political activity in this country.

The siamese-twin setup is not approached as the product of a particular configuration of historical conditions and social alignments in a particular phase of our national development. The ordinary American believes in the two-party system as devoutly and dogmatically as the Stalinist does in the one-party system. The United States has two parties as humans have two eyes and ears, two arms and legs. The Republocrat partnership appears as immutable and irremovable as these corporeal organs.

Any deviation from this pattern is considered abnormal, episodic and suspect. It is almost un-American to sponsor any political formation outside the charmed circle of the predominant parties or to engage in what Senator Eugene McCarthy dismisses as “irregular political movements.”

The Democrats and Republicans are assigned the same monopoly in national politics as General Motors and Ford have in the auto industry. This comparison has more weight than a literary simile. GM and Ford presidents have served as Secretaries of Defense in the last three administrations: Charles Wilson under Eisenhower and Robert McNamara under Kennedy and Johnson. Such close personal links between the giant corporations and the cabinet post in charge of spending tens of billions every year on profitable death-dealing items disclose the material basis of the tie-up between the governing parties and the dominant capitalist class.

The two-party racket is inherently a system resting on duplicity. During election time the candidates of the major parties masquerade as dedicated servants of the peoples’ welfare in order to solicit votes and win office. A witty sociologist has observed that for the ordinary politician there are two sides to every question: the inside and the outside. The outs will use any means to get on the inside where the power and the troughs are.

To secure funds for campaigning and to stay in office Democrats and Republicans alike must do the bidding of business interests on all major questions of foreign and domestic policy. That is why the Johnson administration does not hesitate to cut appropriations for welfare even though it spends one-fifteenth as much on its mini-war on poverty as on its escalated war in Vietnam.

However, the two-party system is not immortal. It had a beginning and will have an end. Nothing in the Constitution of the United States dictates that there must be two parties, no more, no less. During the infancy of the Republic under George Washington there was no distinct party.

The two-party division originated during the administrations of Adams and Jefferson out of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican factions and was crystallized during the two terms of Andrew Jackson from 1829 to 1836 in the shape of the Democratic and Whig candidacies. The precedent for this dual form of upper class rulership, like so much else in early American politics, was given by the British parliamentary system where Tories and Whigs vied for control of the House of Commons, although the American parties have had a far more popular basis from their birth than their British counterparts.

The Republican Party

The most successful and enduring of all the third-party movements in American history came as a climax to this period in national politics. That was the swift rise of the Republican Party which is today one of the pillars of the two-party system. An understanding of this party’s evolution and the main reasons for its victory and longevity can cast considerable light on the chances of other third party movements in the United States.

The Republican Party emerged in the 1850s as the political product of a great national crisis and an instrument for coping with it. It had been prepared for by previous experiments along similar lines in the 1840s: the Liberty and Free Soil parties. These three formations had one major feature in common: opposition to the slave power. The big Southern planters then occupied in American economic and political life the same paramount position that the corporate giants have today. They controlled the Presidency, Congress, Supreme Court and armed forces. They shaped the main lines of foreign and domestic policy through manipulation of all three branches of the federal government at Washington, either directly or in collusion with Northern partners called “dough-faces,” after the Northern representatives who voted for the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

The preferred political agency of the slavocracy was the Democratic Party, then as now infested with white supremacists. Under Polk’s administration which conducted the war with Mexico over Texas from 1846 to 1848, this party became an utterly pliant tool of the slave dealers and cotton planters. But the Southern ruling class could, if necessary, get along with the Whig apparatus which was an unprincipled coalition of diverse elements whose leadership was largely concerned with competing for the spoils of office.

The politically organized anti-planter forces in the North consisted of the fast-ascending manufacturers, the expanding small farmers, the urban middle classes and part of the wage workers. For several decades they tried to curb the planters’ appetites and aggressions, weaken the grip of the slave power and secure satisfaction for their demands through the established two parties. When this proved too frustrating and fruitless, the most militant and forward-looking resisters of the slaveholders organized independently into the Liberty and Free-Soil parties.

Neither movement was able to displace the Whigs as the chief challenger of the Democrats. They disintegrated and disappeared, not because their programs and objectives were not valid, beneficial and required for national progress, but because they were premature. The hour had not yet arrived when an oppositional party of this advanced type could contend for supremacy. Although these pioneering efforts collapsed, their work was not in vain. They cleared the ground for the crop harvested by their Republican successor.

The Republican movement, launched in 1854, was not essentially different in its components, support, positions and aims from these precursors. But it came forth under more matured and propitious economic, social and political circumstances and with far more powerful forces behind it. It was a mass expression, and became the prime political beneficiary of a colossal shakeup and split in the social structure of the United States.

This epoch-making change was brought about by the irrepressible conflict between the pro-slave and the anti-planter camps which erupted into the Civil War. The Republican Party was the outgrowth of a realignment of social forces in the Northern states. It was basically an alliance between the industrial capitalists and the freehold farmers, both of whom were intent upon checking the expansion of the slave power and creating an electoral apparatus to promote and protect their special interests.

The Republicans were a high tariff, national banking, railroad subsidizing, free enterprise, free soil and free labor organization. They were unlike the Abolitionists to their left and even antagonistic to such militant figures, white and black, as Garrison, Douglass, Phillips and John Brown who were determined to exterminate slavery “root and branch,” i.e. by any means necessary.

Republicanism was not motivated by a revolutionary program or aims. It was a party of reform which aspired, not to uproot slavery and its upholders, but only to put a bit and bridle upon the Southern planters and displace them as the top power in Washington.

The Republican Party came to power in the 1860 elections, only six years after it was established. The most important developments along the way were bound up with the growing internal crisis in the slave system of production, the misery of the Southern poor whites, the unrest among the slaves, the expansion of the wealth and power of Northern industry and Northwestern agriculture, the conflict over the possession and admission of the territories into the Union, the disintegration and disappearance of the Whig Party, the economic depression of 1857, the intensified division between the Northern and Southern states, John Brown’s raid and the three-way split of the Democratic party in 1860.

Lincoln’s electoral victory in that year differed from an ordinary presidential replacement in stable times. It signified a drastic shift in the balance of political power among the social classes. This had revolutionary implications. The Northern manufacturers at the head of the Republican coalition had taken over the federal government from the Southern planters who had held the upper hand for decades. In contemporary terms this was comparable to a labor party superseding the Democrats in command of Washington.

The electoral overturn of 1860 posed the following question: Would—or could—the Southern slavocracy peacefully accept and adjust themselves to a change which meant surrendering sovereignty in national affairs to their mortal enemies? Like other outworn and desperate ruling classes, they decided to fight out the issue by force of arms rather than abide by the verdict of the polls. This lesson from American history on the limitations of constitutional democracy when class conflict reaches a showdown should be engraved on the minds of the present generation of radicals.

The pro-slave insurrection of the Confederacy precipitated the Civil War in which the anti-planter camp led by the industrial capitalist small farmer alliance had to cinch on the battlefields the political hegemony they had hoped to obtain through the ballot box. The inescapable dynamics of the war compelled the Republicans to radicalize their policies and take ever more drastic measures to conquer the enemy. This party of gradual reform was forced by circumstances beyond its control to pilot the people through the greatest social and political revolution of the nineteenth century. In order to win the Civil War, shatter the slave power and prevent the planters from returning to supremacy, they had to abolish slavery, expropriate four billion dollars worth of property in human beings, occupy and reorganize the defeated Confederate states.

The present two-party system issued from the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction. As the favored vehicle of the victorious capitalist rulers, the Republican Party underwent another profound transformation—this time in the reverse direction, After it had fulfilled highly progressive functions, it turned into the reactionary tool of big business and high finance we know today.

The discredited and damaged Democratic Party managed to recuperate from the disruptions of the Civil War and reconstitute itself on a somewhat different basis. It assembled under one tent all those elements which could not get along or go along with the Republican plutocracy: Big merchants and small businessmen, farmers, Northern workers, Southern white supremacists, professionals and certain liberal dissidents. After the Civil War period, the Democrats were used by the ruling class, like the Whigs before them as a safety valve for social protest and a reliable replacement to administer the capitalist regime.

The rise of the Republican Party proves that a third party can come to power in the United States and remain a principal contender in national politics—provided objective conditions are favorable. The main trends of economic and social development are decisive in shaping the course, the life-span and the chances for success of any serious challenger to the traditional parties.

This truth was positively affirmed by the achievements of the Republican Party both in its radical and its reactionary phases. It has been confirmed in the negative by the fate of all third party movements since the Civil War.

The Republican Party was lifted to the heights on the flood of a revolutionary reconstruction of American society along bourgeois-democratic lines. It has stayed in the field because the capitalist class it represented has maintained and enhanced its economic, social and political strength. It was swept to the top and held on there thanks to the surge of forces connected with the industrialization of the United States under capitalist auspices.

Populist and Progressive Movements

The third parties which have sprung up in the past hundred years have had to make their way and try to find a foothold in the political arena in an altogether different setting. They had to buck up against the conservative post-revolutionary conditions that attended the impetuous, almost uninterrupted expansion of the capitalist system of this country. This has been the main stumbling block in their path to power or even their survival—and in the end these adverse conditions proved to be insurmountable for them all.

Third parties in the United States over the past century have belonged to two different categories; they have had either a middle class stamp or a working class basis. The formations of the first type, Populist and Progressive in character, were predominant during the first phase of this development.

Despite their subsidiary differences, these middle class reform movements had fundamentally similar features. All were engendered by the inequities of an ascending national capitalism and stimulated by its economic fluctuations. They embodied protests against the domination and depredation of the big financial and industrial interests which commanded the heights of the economy and the established party machines. They sought to curb or reverse the inexorable processes of capitalist centralization and control over the decisive domains of American life.

They had plenty of fighting spirit, as the proclamation of Mary Ellen Lease of Kansas, “let’s raise less corn and more hell,” indicated. But these movements lacked stability, stamina and realistic objectives. The Populist-Progressive hosts wanted to equalize opportunity, disperse the ownership of property, share the wealth more fairly and improve the living standards of the masses. They set out to democratize the political structure by transferring control of the federal and state governments and the courts from the plutocracy to the people. They expected to prevent imperialist adventures and keep the nation at peace.

They marched against the fortresses of plutocratic power time and again between 1872 and 1917 with these purposes in view. They had much to their credit. Their opposition prevented the money men from riding roughshod over the American people and was a potent factor to be reckoned with at every step by the masters of the land. They won certain of the reforms they proposed and fought for: women’s suffrage, party primaries, the initiative, referendum, and recall of elected officials, direct election of U. S. Senators and the graduated income tax. They were responsible for gains in social welfare, prison reform, child labor legislation and settlement house work.

Their most valuable achievements were in the cultural field: the improvement and extension of free public education and free public libraries, the renewal of realistic literature from Howells to Dreiser, the liberal reinterpretation of American history under Beard and Barrington, a more enlightened jurisprudence, and finally the creation of Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy.

But none of their major objectives were attained. The Populist-Progressive crusades did not establish any enduring national party to compete with and displace what they called the “Gold Dust Twins.” They didn’t effect any substantial changes in the American economy which redistributed incomes more equitably at the expense of the big capitalists. They forced the passage of anti-trust laws only to see the monopolies grow greater, stronger and wealthier year by year. They couldn’t hold back the imperialists from entering the Spanish-American war or the four wars of the twentieth century.

The root causes of their failures were lodged in their class positions and dispositions. These middle class reformers did not want to abolish, capitalism but only to modify its operations on behalf of their constituencies. They demanded a larger share for the masses (other than the Indians and Afro-Americans) in the progress and prosperity of the profit system.

If the Progressive forces were stirred into anger, organization and action by every onset of hard times, the subsequent periods of capitalist revival and boom dampened their fighting ardor, disoriented and devitalized them. Thus they found it difficult to maintain themselves as a formidable independent force through thick and thin. Large sectors of their followers either turned back or were pulled back by opportunistic leaders toward the most demagogic of the major parties, as in 1896 and 1912. And at every crucial juncture in foreign affairs the reformers either split or backed the war-makers.

At bottom these movements had a utopian character and a retrogressive outlook. They sought to draw American capitalism back to its childhood as it was growing into monopolist rule and imperialist world dominion. Since they did not loom and could not act beyond the precincts of a bourgeois society remodeled to their unrealistic specifications, they had to endure the logical consequences of its actual path of development: centralization of wealth and power, growing inequality, poverty amidst plenty, discrimination against minorities, political reaction and militarism.

Unable to grasp the dynamics of the principal forces at work in American social evolution and in their world, the gradualist movements gradually lost whatever capacities for progressive influence they originally possessed and petered out one after the other.

The Socialist Movement

Around 1900, after several decades of propaganda in restricted circles, a distinctively new sort of third party came into being. It was far more radical and more in accord with the laws and lines of development governing the twentieth century. This was the socialist movement.

In contrast with the Populists and Progressives, socialism was explicitly working class in its social basis, programmatic premises and proposals. It revolved around the conception of replacing capitalism with a new form of economic and political organization based upon public rather than private ownership. It was not merely anti-monopolist but anti-capitalist. In projecting a revolutionary perspective for the American people, the socialists of that time completely divorced themselves from the Democratic and Republican machines and declared war to the death upon them.

During the first twenty years of this century socialism became a factor in American politics on a national scale for the first time. Because of the still far from exhausted potentialities of U.S. capitalism, this initial mass socialist venture could not play more than a preparatory role. In addition to this unavoidable historical restriction, the movement was vitiated by reformist practices and then devitalized by two splits. The first was occasioned by the U. S. entry into World War I, the other resulted from the irrepressible and legitimate conflict between the reformist-centrist elements and the left wing generated by the impact of the Bolshevik revolution.

Neither the waning Socialist Party of Norman Thomas nor the young oncoming Communist Party could make much headway against the adverse currents of the booming 1920s, anymore than comparable radical groupings could grow in the 1950s. The great spurt in the size and influence of the American Communist Party came with the crisis years of the early 1930s when it rapidly became predominant on the left. Even the Socialist Party expanded during the depression days and their immediate aftermath.

Until the mid-1930s both of these working class organizations remained opposed in principle and in practice to any participation in the two-party system on a national scale. They then began to alter their attitudes and break with the tradition of independent class politics upon which the socialist and communist movements had been built. They did so for different reasons but with equally disastrous results.

As in everything else, the SP drifted away from its original electoral policy, which placed it in intransigent opposition to the capitalist two parties, in a slow and gradual fashion. It took three decades for its infidelity to its founding positions to be completely consummated. The old guard socialists in the leadership of the garment unions took the first step when they broke away from the party in 1936 and formed the American Labor Party in New York as a pseudo-independent means of garnering votes for Roosevelt.

Although Norman Thomas and his cohorts repudiated this abandonment of the socialist tradition, they proceeded to imitate the example on a local scale by backing the reform Republican LaGuardia in the 1937 New York elections for mayor. When the Trotskyists condemned this lapse into opportunism, they were expelled from the SP and had to form the Socialist Workers Party.

Through inertia the SP continued to field a national ticket in a number of presidential races thereafter but without much fervor or conviction. The hopes of their leadership and much of their dwindling membership more and more shifted to the prospector reforming or realigning the Democratic Party. In 1964, for example, its veteran standard bearer, Norman Thomas, supported Johnson as “the lesser evil.” The SP National Committee emphasized its commitment to coalition politics by suspending the entire Young People’s Socialist League for its resistance to this endorsement. Today, the SP, which originally urged people to climb out of the two-party swamp, has become totally immersed in it.

The Communist Party

The Communist Party has followed a similar path over the past three decades but in a more devious manner. Its repudiation of independent working class politics was far more brazen. After having castigated Roosevelt as a “fascist” agent of big business in 1936, Earl Browder, then Stalin’s lieutenant as leader of the CP, abruptly proclaimed that the Republican candidate Landon “must be defeated at all costs.” The price paid was scrapping the Leninist principle of no support to any political representative of the capitalist ruling class.

In reminiscences published thirty years later (see: As We Saw the Thirties,University of Indiana Press, 1967), Browder revealed that this turnabout was made on instructions from the leaders of the Communist International which, in reaction to the changed world relationship of forces following Hitler’s triumph, swung to the policies of the popular front and “collective security” through the League of Nations. In the United States this alliance with the imperialist democracies required subordination to the Roosevelt administration.

While Foster readily accepted the proposal to support Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936, Browder demurred, not for any reasons of principle, but for motives of expediency. He explained that open CP endorsement of Roosevelt would give a handle to the Republicans and thus harm more than help his return to office. The same objective could be better promoted, Browder argued, concentrating fire on the Republican candidate Landon. He persuaded the Comintern heads to accept this devious maneuver which guided CP electoral conduct that year. In his memoirs Browder gloats with pride over the success of this “tactic.”

The formula for back-handed and shamefaced support of capitalist party candidates devised by the long deposed Stalinist leader has been retained and used by all his successors from Foster to Gus Hall. With intermittent exceptions (once in 1940 when Stalin was temporarily allied with Hitler and again in 1948 and 1952 when Washington initiated the cold war) the CP has been enmeshed in “coalition politics” which has usually meant backing Democratic tickets.

Its participation in the Progressive Party campaign of 1948 headed by Henry Wallace represented a last spasm of earlier third party experiences combined with the electoral opportunism of the CP. This ephemeral third party was primarily engendered by the switch of U.S. imperialism from wartime alliance to global hostility toward the Soviet Union. Wallace, who had been Roosevelt’s vice president from 1940 to 1944, was somewhat slower in adjusting to the changed requirements and new realities of world politics than his bourgeois colleagues. His resistance to Truman’s foreign policy was mistakenly interpreted by many gullible people and exploited by the CP as serious opposition to Washington’s cold war course and a peaceful alternative to it.

No sooner did the Korean War break out than the “peace-loving” Wallace wholeheartedly endorsed it, leaving his Progressive dupes in the lurch. He ended in the Republican ranks.

From 1956 on the CP has reverted to its more blatant opportunistic policy of supporting the Democratic presidential tickets as “a lesser evil” to the “reactionary, fascist, warmongering threat” represented by the Republican candidacies of Eisenhower, Nixon and Goldwater. Thus in 1964 both the CP and SP vied with each other in stampeding radical votes into Johnson’s corral on the ground that the man from Texas would guard the “peace” against Goldwater.

Under the monopolistic and imperialistic capitalism of today, petty bourgeois progressivism of all varieties has become decadent and impotent. It has largely shrivelled into a set of formulas and pious wishes which give no substantial results, even in the way of reforms. Democratic demagogues have become adepts at mouthing its rhetoric in order to gull the public. Wilson’s New Freedom, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman’s Square Deal, J. F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson’s Great Society and now Robert Kennedy’s New America all belong in the repertory of Madison Avenue utopias culled from the vocabulary of progressivism.

Lesser-Evilism or Socialist Politics?

It has been emphasized that the fortunes of third party challenges in the past have ultimately been determined for good or ill by the objective conditions of the class struggle. The third party oppositions of our own time will be governed by the same laws of development.

Viable new political formations to the left of the entrenched capitalist machines would have to be based upon powerful ascending social forces, express and promote the main tendencies of progress in our national life, and develop programs and activities corresponding to the needs and demands of the exploited and oppressed.

The Socialist Workers Party favors the formation of two mass political movements meeting such specifications. One would be a labor party issuing from the trade unions, as in England and Canada. The other would be an independent black party appealing to the millions of Afro-Americans with an intensified nationalist consciousness.

However, neither of these possible progressive variants of political development are on the scene in 1968. The Socialist Workers Party offers the only clear-cut opposition to the political agencies of the capitalist regime in the current presidential race.

In a number of states there will also be third party ventures under assorted “peace and freedom” designations. Such hybrid movements and improvised tickets will not have a solid class basis, a mass following, a definitive program or a socialist orientation. They will be belated and abortive reproductions of the “progressive” fiascos already interred in the political graveyard. They may temporarily rally a heterogeneous grouping of middle class dissidents around a formless radicalism and fragile reformism which will break into fragments as they run up against the realities of the confrontation with monopoly capitalism.

In 1948 the Progressive Party of Henry Wallace was on the ballot in 46 states and received over a million votes. It had sunk without a trace five years later. That same year the Socialist Workers Party launched its first presidential ticket on a more modest scale but with a much sounder political perspective. Twenty years later it is conducting the most extensive and effective national campaign in its history.

The pseudo-realists of the “lesser evil” choices along with the opportunistic practitioners of coalition politics with the capitalist candidates will once more argue that an independent socialist campaign is ineffectual and unwarranted because the masses are not ready to support it. They want to enjoy the harvest without breaking the ground and sowing the seeds for a new departure in American politics.

They fail to understand that socialists in the United States today are at a point comparable to that of the Abolitionists and the most militant adherents of the Liberty and Free Soil parties in the decades before the Civil War. They are pioneers in a struggle wherein a deepening crisis of the reactionary ruling class provides promising openings for the forces of freedom.

By abandoning independent working class positions in order to swim like minnows behind the capitalist sharks in the channels of the two party system, the Communist and Socialist leaderships have not only discredited themselves and weakened their organizations, they have demoralized and disoriented several generations of radicals who have virtually lost sight of the elementary principles and tasks of socialist political action. There are many young rebels who are disgusted with the Johnson administration and look beyond McCarthy and Kennedy, Gregory and Speck. Where, when and how will they hear about the authentic views and proposals of socialism if the voices of Marxism are silent or subdued during a national election and the field is left to the direct upholders and the would-be rehabilitators of a sick capitalist society? This is the time when they can learn about the liberating ideas of socialism from its genuine proponents instead of from cold warriors, contented and corrupted pro-capitalist liberals and renegade radicals.

The difficulties of American imperialism urgently call for the renewal and reinforcement of an honest revolutionary alternative in the heartland of world capitalism. The Socialist Workers Party proposes to provide leadership for this movement. The key points in its election program advocate ending the genocidal intervention by withdrawing American troops from Vietnam without delay; black control of the black community; support to all revolutionary regimes and movements from Cuba to Southeast Asia; workers power; and a fundamental socialist transformation of the United States.