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Fourth International, March 1946


Warren Creel

The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party


From Fourth International, March 1946, Vol.7 No.3, pp.77-81b
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


(Warren Creel was formerly Secretary of the Educational Bureau of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association.)

In 1944, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party ended twenty-six years of activity as an independent party by merging with the Democrats. The party was eliminated by a bureaucratically forced merger although it was still a strong political force. The Farmer-Labor candidate for governor had been defeated in 1938, after eight years of electoral victories. Yet up to the merger the party was still polling 38 percent of the vote in state elections, more than the Minnesota Democratic Party.

The Farmer-Labor Party’s quarter century of activity provides the longest experience with a labor party that U.S. history offers up to the present. The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association was a genuine labor party. It was not just a pro-labor party, it was a party of organized labor, a political federation of labor unions.

The Minnesota Association was started by a convention of the Minnesota State Federation of Labor, and was largely financed by a per-capita tax from the affiliated unions, which included practically the whole trade union movement. Unions in Minnesota carried on the party’s political work as a regular union activity.

The Farmer-Labor Party contained another class element, a current of middle class political protest, based particularly on the farmers and small business men. The relation between these two class elements, working class politics on the one hand, and middle class or petty-bourgeois politics on the other, played a large part in governing the party’s life, and finally brought about its death. It was a variable relation, shifting from cooperation to opposition at various stages of the movement.

The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party started in 1918, at the end of the First World War and took form from the class pattern of its time. This pattern has changed greatly since then.

The seed of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party was in the Socialist Party, which reached its height just before the First World War. The Socialist weekly Appeal to Reason had a circulation of a million, with two to four million printed for special editions. Other Socialist periodicals had mass circulations. The Socialist Party elected mayors in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and elsewhere.

The Socialist movement of that day sprang, not from capitalist decline, but from capitalist growth. Large scale enterprises were taking over the economic scene. Monopolies were ousting the small business men. Capitalism was changing America from an agricultural to an industrial nation, forcing out the farmers by the debt and mortgage foreclosure route.

While the workers organized against capitalism for working class reasons, a separate movement of the middle class attacked capitalism for reasons of its own.

The American petty bourgeoisie, the middle class, steadily reduced and circumscribed by capitalism, formed a series of political movements in the hopeless attempt to stop the historical development that had doomed them. The Populists, who merged with the Democratic Party and became the William Jennings Bryan Democrats, and the Bull Moosers behind Theodore Roosevelt, the phony “trust-buster,” and the various “money crank” movements, were some of the expressions of this petty-bourgeois protest against capitalism.

Many of the best and most far sighted of these middle class protesters, both small business men and farmers, joined the Socialist Party, and helped make it the mass movement that it was. But they also helped import their non-working class tendency into the Socialist Party.

A Fraudulent Alibi

In the Minnesota labor movement before the First World War, as in other states, a large and active Socialist group constantly advocated political action by labor. The labor bureaucrats, who were Republican politicians themselves, found an easy excuse by pointing to the bugaboo of the “conservative, backward farmers.” In Minnesota the population was evenly divided 50 percent urban, 50 percent rural during this period. When a resolution for political action was debated at a labor convention the bureaucrats would agree that labor needed political action, but they would say, “You can’t win an election without the farm vote, boys, and the farmers are conservative, they are anti-labor, they always vote Republican, so it’s useless to try.”

That notion exploded in 1916 when the farmers organized the Nonpartisan League and swept into office a state ticket and a legislature in North Dakota in their first election campaign. The Nonpartisan League soon grew into a mass movement covering the middle west, putting its candidates into office in a large group of states, and then was liquidated so thoroughly that the scope of the movement is almost forgotten. It was strictly a farmers’ group, a small proprietors’ party, an organization of petty-bourgeois political action.

The Nonpartisan League built on the farm following of the old Socialist Party; the organizers would go into a county with the list of subscribers to the Appeal to Reason as their starting point. The League won immediate mass support, gaining startlingly prompt election success. In Minnesota it soon gained a large membership. The League scored substantial achievements in economic and social legislation in several states. But it set itself no goals beyond this, and even during its victories fell to pieces. In the space of a few years the national Nonpartisan League went through its complete evolution ending in death.

The First World War brought a crisis for organized labor which was attacked by a nationwide open shop drive, and in Minnesota by anti-union prosecutions of a particularly vicious Minnesota Public Safety Commission. While this emergency turned labor’s eyes to a political defense, the Nonpartisan League put a stop to the labor bureaucrat’s stall about the impossibility of getting the farmers into motion. It was labor’s move.

At a convention of the Minnesota State Federation of Labor in July 1918, Socialists who were delegates from numerous unions offered a resolution calling for a state labor political convention. In the war atmosphere, many delegates were afraid to sign the resolution for fear of being labeled pro-German. But the resolution was nonetheless passed and the State Federation called the unions to a convention which set up the Working People’s Nonpartisan Political League. The labor movement took as its model the farmers, who had been called “backward” for so many years.

At first the labor and farm leagues worked jointly in the election campaigns. In 1923 the separate leagues were merged into the Farmer-Labor Federation, and later the name was changed to Farmer-Labor Association. This was the membership organization, made up of both affiliated unions, paying a per capita tax of two cents a member a month, and Farmer-Labor clubs, with membership dues of a dollar a year.

The rise of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party was not an exceptional one-state development, but part of a national political upsurge in the postwar period which brought the organization of similar Farmer-Labor parties in many states, and the national campaign for LaFollette for President in 1924. The exceptional state feature was this, that during its rise the Minnesota party was giten official labor sponsorship and organized labor party machinery. While in other states Farmer-Labor parties were formed by a few unions, in Minnesota the State Federation of Labor issued the call to the whole labor movement. The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association drew its finances from a per capita paid by stable union organizations.

“Declaration of Principles”

Out of all the nationwide organizations, the Minnesota movement, having official organized labor backing, was the only one to survive.

In spite of continued loyalty from Minnesota farmers, and a continued strong farm vote, the dues-paying membership in rural counties dropped to almost nothing in a few years, and the function of financing the Association fell completely on the labor unions through the ’Twenties.

In various detailed points the Association’s Declaration of Principles expressed its general aim, to serve as the political arm of the working people, without differentiation between workers and farmers.

The Farmer-Labor movement seeks to unite into a political organization all persons engaged in agriculture and other useful industry, and those in sympathy with their interests, for the purpose of securing legislation that will protect and promote the economic welfare of the wealth producers.

And further,

It maintains that the prevailing inequality of opportunity is due to special privileges and monopolistic advantages, which can and should be abolished by legislative action.

It declares that the government at present is dominated by the few and its powers are used to serve special interests. Money and credits, market and exchange facilities, the means of transportation and communication and the natural resources and other basic industries of the nation are practically monopolized by an industrial and financial oligarchy, which is in a position to extract tribute from all who live by labor and to keep great masses of people in a condition of unemployment and destitution by manipulating the productive powers of the nation.

It aims to rescue the government from the control of the privileged few and make it function for the use and benefit of all by abolishing monopoly in every form, and to establish in place thereof a system of public ownership and operation of monopolized industries, which will afford every able and willing worker an opportunity to work and will guarantee the enjoyment of the proceeds thereof, thus increasing the amount of available wealth, eradicating unemployment and destitution, and abolishing industrial autocracy.

As immediate aims the party fought for labor rights and labor strength and protection of labor organization, for better prices for farm products, relief from farm debts, and strengthening of farm cooperative organizations. It campaigned for “honest government” and fought the corrupt old parties.

It always pressed the point that the two-party system was a fraud, that the workers and farmers couldn’t win in a choice between two old parties, both controlled by the capitalist class. The effect of this Farmer-Labor program was electrifying. The members sacrificed to finance campaigns. They distributed literature, made house-to-house drives to register voters, etc., to build the party of the working class, “to promote the economic welfare of the wealth producers.”

Why Party Survived

Victory in each immediate election is not necessary for a party’s survival so long as it has this class orientation. Its very existence is a victory. The labor members of the party feel well rewarded for their campaign efforts by getting a few spokesman into effective positions. And they are right, for a spokesman who is a servant of the labor party is a great gain. Thus, a few Farmer-Laborites in the Minnesota state legislature were able to force real concessions for both farmers and organized labor in the ’Twenties. The record of legislation, especially farm legislation, won by a Farmer-Labor minority in the Minnesota state legislature is phenomenal.

When the party began getting majorities in the ’Thirties, the petty-bourgeois office-holders who had jumped on the bandwagon put forward the idea that only majorities and election victories can count, because that’s all that can count for jobs for office-holders. They set to work to weaken the program and turn away from the class line to appeal to everybody, so as to always have the majority and the election victory. Dropping the class orientation for victory at any price brought defeat and eventually killed the party.

The prosperity of the ’Twenties was a lean time for political. protest movements. The Minnesota party, however, was able to survive the general decline that killed off the national Farmer-Labor movement precisely because of its stable organized labor backing. While the Minnesota FLP suffered along with the rest, it continued to be, not a third party, but the second party. Minnesota politics was a fight between the Republican and Farmer-Labor parties, with the Democratic Party a poor third, even through the Coolidge prosperity era.

The first election campaign of the Farmer-Labor Party, in 1918, gave this vote for governor (to the nearest thousand):


Farmer-Labor, David H. Evans



Republican, J.A.A. Burnquist



Democrat, Fred E. Wheaton



In 1920 the candidates were run in the final election under the name “Independent.” (All votes show larger than 1918. because the suffrage amendment had given women the vote.)


Independent, Henrik Shipstead



Republican, J.O.A. Preus



Democrat, L.C. Hodgson



The party’s percentage of the vote. it will be noted, had dropped badly. In 1922 the movement abandoned “nonpartisan”, tactics altogether, fought all the way through the primaries and general election under the Farmer-Labor name, and came very close to victory, with the Democrats still nowhere:


Farmer-Labor, Magnus Johnson



Republican, J.O.A. Preus



Democrat, Edward Indrehus



In 1922 the party elected two Farmer-Labor congressmen and a senator.

Even in 1928, which marked the low point in the party vote, it kept its second position, exceeding the Democrats by a small margin. In 1930, with the outbreak of the depression, the party elected the first Farmer-Labor governor and started the eight years of Farmer-Labor state administration.

In the farmer and labor alliance trouble did not develop in the form that might be expected, as a conflict between the interests of the two groups. In Minnesota the farmers and labor cooperated very well on the level of immediate issues. The farmers were most favorably impressed by what the labor movement was willing and able to do for them.

However the genuine farmers as well as pseudo-farmers – small town bankers and lawyers – were an influence for retreat from a working class orientation. When the movement was taking shape there were sharp battles over opportunist steps, such as the nomination of Henrik Shipstead for U.S. Senator in 1922. The farmers, of course, considered themselves as holding the party on the correct middle of the road. As Marx explained, the petty bourgeois, pulled two ways by his double class position, “inwardly flatters himself that he is impartial and has found the right equilibrium ...”

In Association conventions the farm and labor delegates represented entirely different types of organizations. The farm delegations came from a few small or even inactive clubs, since the dues-paying rural membership dropped away after the first wave of organization. Yet they cast convention votes all out of proportion to their membership, because the Association constitution allotted votes by areas in proportion to Farmer-Labor strength in the state election. As long as the party’s farm vote held up, which it did, delegates from a few small rural clubs voted for half the Farmer-Labor Association.

The labor section was basically a political federation of labor unions, a genuine labor party organization. It had in operation the elementary machinery that is necessary for real working class politics. Political activity started in the affiliated labor union locals, where political discussion, reports of political delegates, and political campaign activity were part of the regular business of each meeting, and payment of per-capita to the labor political organization was a constant part of the budget. Delegates from the unions of each city met in monthly meetings or oftener, as the Farmer-Labor Association city central committee. This went on month after month and year after year.

In the cities, on the fringe of the political federation of unions there were other organizations, also part of the Farmer-Labor Association, and also sending delegates to the Farmer-Labor central committee. These were mainly Farmer-Labor clubs; some other organizations, such as Socialist Party locals also were affiliated. All these organizations played a secondary role to the unions, until the days of decline of the party.

A functioning labor party organization, based on the unions, is a powerful means of holding the party to a class program. The petty-bourgeois politicians wanted to turn the party away from the class program and toward compromise. They soon saw that they would have to begin by eliminating the labor party form of organization and they tried it. The leader in this attempt was F.A. Pike of the Nonpartisan League. Pike was a Democrat, not a farmer but a lawyer, the Nonpartisan League’s attorney. He was state chairman of the “Farmer-Labor Party” which was the non-membership skeleton “organization” required by the state election law for all parties on the ballot. He proposed liquidating the membership organizations and operating with only ordinary election machinery like the two old parties.

Some of the story of this struggle was retold in the May 13, 1925 issue of the movement’s state newspaper (then the Farmer-Labor Advocate, later named Farmer-Labor Leader):

A peculiar conflict of opinion has prevailed within the Farmer-Labor movement since its organization. Many of the supporters coming from the old political parties cannot see the necessity for maintaining active organization and educational work between campaigns. These voters have not yet been able to discover the vital difference between the Farmer-Labor Party and the old capitalist parties ...

Perhaps the most intense discussion of party affairs arose out of the campaigns of 1922-23 over the difference of views between the state chairman of the Farmer-Labor Party, F.A. Pike, and state chairman of the Working People’s league, [ex-Socialist] Wm. Mahoney ...

Mr. Pike, as head of the Farmer-Labor Party, took the position that it was identical with the old parties in form and method and that it was not permissible nor necessary for it to assume any other functions than that prescribed by the state law creating and governing political parties. On his side of the controversy were a large number of persons who did not have a fundamental grasp of the Farmer-Labor movement and considered it simply a variation of the old parties.

On the other side, Mr. Mahoney and others maintained that the Farmer-Labor movement and the party that represented it was fundamentally different from the old parties, and required an entirely different form of organization to accomplish its purpose.

Pike was defeated at a convention in St. Cloud by a coalition of trade unionist and Communist Party forces. This set the movement on the path of labor party organization and cleared the way for the merger of the labor and farm leagues into the Farmer-Labor Federation. The following year the trade unionists expelled the Communists and changed the name to Farmer-Labor Association.

Olson and the FLP

The struggle against the forces led by Pike forecast the party struggle of the ’Thirties, when another lawyer from the Democratic Party, named Floyd B. Olson, was to try again to substitute old party forms for the labor party machinery.

Floyd Olson, a capable, courageous and spectacular politician, had been county attorney in Minneapolis for several years, and had made himself immensely popular. The depression offered the Farmer-Laborites a chance of victory in 1930, and they wanted Olson as standard-bearer. As a condition of accepting the nomination, he demanded that the Association convention vote him a free hand in making appointments. The convention granted it.

Olson promptly proceeded to set up an organization of “Olson All-Party Committees,” outside the Association. These were made up of band-wagon climbing Republicans, Democrats, and political opportunists of every stripe, who supported Olson on the promise of state jobs, or other political deals. The task of the “All-Party” politicians was to campaign on the “good man” platform. Meanwhile the Association was to keep on getting votes for the Farmer-Labor program.

The campaign of Olson and his supporters was an open effort to “slur over contradictions and differences,” and to “unite people of different views and tendencies, and subordinate clarification of their differences to success in the organization struggle.” Such an aim required them to get rid of the Association. Olson began his attempt to replace and eliminate the Association immediately after he was elected. But he ran into trouble, and a lot of trouble.

This labor party, even though it was divided within itself by its two-class composition, even though it was crippled by limitation to one state, even though at this time it lacked leadership conscious of the party’s role and organizational needs, still this labor party showed an amazing vitality, a capacity to absorb punishment and keep moving forward.

Olson went into office as the first Farmer-Labor governor, but he appointed old party politicians from the “All-Party” machine to policy-forming state posts, and even appointed a Republican as State Personnel director, in charge of hiring for all state jobs. Naturally, state patronage went to “All-Partyites.” The loyal Farmer-Laborites stood out in the cold for a while before they woke up to what their idol was doing, and then they started a party struggle which boiled in the movement for years.

The struggle couldn’t be resolved as Olson had planned it, because even the state jobs did not succeed in building up the “All-Party” machine into a party to replace the Association. The Association just did not submit to being eliminated. In spite of political patronage starvation it grew, until it forced substantial political recognition from Olson. When Olson came up for re-election he was forced to recognize the strength of the Association.

Yet through the years the political opportunists slowly gained. They outmaneuvered the rank-and-file Farmer-Laborites, principally by exploiting and betraying the loyalty of the members to the party. The “All-Party” politicians themselves could accomplish little in the fight, because they couldn’t command respect or trust from the party’s rank and file. It always had to be politicians from the Association who served as cover.

The worker members had strong organizational loyalty. Even when skeptical, they preferred to try almost anything before forcing a break that would jeopardize their party. The protesting worker Farmer-Laborites, in the various committees from the state Association, from local clubs and affiliated unions would confer again and again with state and party officials on their grievances. What the workers wanted, at bottom, was to take the situation into their own hands and do it their way, but the matter was always presented to them as if they did not have that choice. It was made to appear that they had to choose between accepting a bad bargain or breaking ranks and injuring the whole organization. Faced with this choice the workers often backed down, “for the good of the party.”

Various items of the Farmer-Labor program, on which the administration had been delaying, finally saw some action as a result of Association pressure. In the end the administration yielded on the patronage issue, which was a burning one in years of unemployment like 1932 and 1933. A system of preferred lists was set up for state jobs, made up on endorsements from Farmer-Labor clubs. Although some big policy-forming jobs went to “All-Partyites,” a Farmer-Labor endorsement became necessary for the general run of state jobs.

In this period the Association grew by leaps, previously unorganized counties were covered with Farmer-Labor clubs in a rush, and the club membership began to rival the affiliated unions in size. By the convention of 1934 for the first time all counties of the state had Farmer-Labor organizations. There was no guarantee of the political interest of the new members. A large part of them eventually came to be controlled through their state jobs, and acted as a state employee machine in the Association. The attempt to replace the Association with an “All-Party” machine had failed, but the administration captured the Association by the patronage route. For a time finally came when the Association’s issues squarely on job state committee voted on organization lines, with all the state employees on the committee voting to uphold the governor, and all the rest voting against the governor. In the end the administration had a majority of job-holders on the state committee.

Unbelievable as it seems, with all the advantages on the side of the politicians, there was still a period of several years of struggle before the Farmer-Labor members were licked.

The Minneapolis workers found that the Farmer-Labor Party was less dependable as a class instrument than their unions. Early in the ‘Thirties at the Minneapolis city election the Farmer-Labor voters turned out the Republican mayor, on the issue that his police had killed two pickets during the truck strike. The new Farmer-Labor mayor was, not a militant worker, nor a union worker at all, but a lawyer named Thomas Latimer, a former Socialist Party candidate for governor. Before many weeks Mayor Latimer marched in person at the head of his police to escort scabs through a picket line at the Flour City Iron Works, where later his police tear-gassed and shot pickets, killing two bystanders.

Latimer was following the advice of certain conservative Minnesota labor leaders. These bureaucrats were terrified by the strike wave, which was under the leadership of the Minnesota Socialist Workers Party; they were alarmed by the rank-and-file activity this stirred up, and the militant leadership this was advancing in the unions. They wanted the Farmer-Labor mayor to make the labor movement safe for union bureaucracy by stopping mass strikes and sending all labor disputes to government arbitration. Latimer created a city Board of Mediation, appointed some employers and conservative labor officials to it, and called on all strikers to go back to work without a settlement, leaving their disputes to his board.

When the strikers wouldn’t trust their fate to Latimer’s Mediation Board he lost his head and tried to use the police to enforce his “labor peace” with bullets. Latimer and his kind not only couldn’t understand working class action, they were panic-stricken by it.

But the workers had a hold over the Farmer-Labor mayor, even such a miserable example as Latimer. Minneapolis labor boiled. The movement held a protest mass meeting to which it summoned Latimer and he had to respond. Behind the scenes the party officials and union leaders tried to close ranks to protect Latimer (“these protests will embarrass the governor”) but they only succeeded in keeping him from being bodily thrown out of office. He remained a political cripple for the rest of his term.

Aftermath of 1934 Victory

The party officials thought the “radical platform” adopted in 1934 under the workers’ pressure would kill the party, but in the 1934 election the Farmer-Labor ticket as a whole polled better than ever before. Olson was re-elected by a good margin, although his personal vote went down a little from the previous point. It was more a party, and less an “All-Party” vote. Still the convention’s action scared the Farmer-Labor state officials out of their wits, and they set out again to get rid of the inconvenient rank-and-file, more precisely the membership organization form.

One of their plans was to eliminate the Association entirely by merging with the Progressive Party of Wisconsin. The latter was a LaFollette family affair, with no membership organization to demand adherence to a program. The party tops maneuvered frantically. They removed the state secretary of the Association because he pushed Association policies against Olson’s wishes. They discharged the editor of the Farmer-Labor Leader because he supported the Association against the “All-Partyites.” They changed the paper’s name.

With all their scurrying they couldn’t find a substitute for the Association, nor a way to get along without its votes. The Farmer-Labor Association continued to stand for a certain program to thousands of workers and farmers, and they clung to it. The office-holders only succeeded in tightening up control to stop any more voice from the ranks, to make more clear the widening gap between the worker members and the petty-bourgeois politicians in office. They succeeded in adding more and more to the feeling of the worker members that it was no longer their own party. Thus they dealt mortal wounds by striking at the basic program of the movement, “to serve as the political arm of the working class.” Nevertheless it took four years before the movement suffered an election defeat, and ten years before the Association could be liquidated.

The movement became weakened especially at its core, the affiliated unions. The dissatisfaction of the union members led them to demand party discipline, which demand comes in the normal course of events in a labor party. But this dissatisfaction was used by the large bloc of labor officials whose real feelings were against the labor party. Every political grievance of the union members gave them opportunity to do deadly work.

The labor skates used every opportunity to stir up discontent with the Farmer-Labor Party, and to channel that discontent away from an attempt to enforce discipline: They did not want to improve the party, but only to split the unions away from it. They were in a fine position to deceive the union members. They denounced the same politicians that the members denounced, and cursed the same betrayals. They stressed the main issue, that the party no longer belonged to the workers. Only their remedy was not to get rid of the petty-bourgeois parasites, but to march out and leave the party in their hands.

Floyd Olson’s early death in 1936 brought on a scramble for control which speeded all the tendencies of decline in the party. Elmer Benson, who was elected governor by the Farmer-Labor Party after Olson’s death, was a prisoner of the deals he had made for support from various blocs in the party. Benson was a small town banker, with no knowledge of the labor movement and no skill in politics. In the party struggle he grabbed for allies and hung on.

Perfidious Role of Stalinists

It was the Communist Party (Stalinists) who cashed in on this situation through their superior organizing techniques and methods plus their recklessness resulting from their desertion of working class principles. Benson and the Stalinists used the Farmer-Labor organization and state patronage strictly for their own ends. Veteran Farmer-Laborites were spurned, union organizations rebuked. Union representatives were refused appointments to see the governor, and labor’s program was thrown out the window by Benson.

Benson’s antics brought great satisfaction to the labor skates. They proclaimed that the movement was in a hopeless mess from Stalinist control, and could no longer be considered an instrument of labor. They urged the unions to walk out, and set up separate labor central political committees in each city, to serve as direct political arms of organized labor. They proposed such committees as a cure for the sick Farmer-Labor Party, by giving simon-pure independent labor political action, the genuine article, representing labor alone and excluding the non-worker elements. In practice this was a step back to the Gompers method of an “independent” labor choice between two identically anti-labor old parties. The Farmer-Labor mess was so bad, and the workers were so sick of the interlopers, that this proposal succeeded in confusing genuine Farmer-Laborites in the unions. The labor fakers’ proposed “reform,” of course, turned out to be a bridge back to old party politics, to Republican Party politics for most of the labor skates. The labor political committees didn’t give Republican endorsements, but they tied up the labor movement while the skates themselves went in droves on “Labor Volunteer Committees for Stassen.”

Some Farmer-Labor militants had welcomed the Stalinists, expecting them to be allies against the “All-Party” politicians. But entanglement with the old parties was exactly the Stalinist plan. They led the fight against a working class program, and united with any discredited reactionary who would go with their bloc.

Scuttling of the FLP

The party’s retreat from its working class orientation killed it politically during Benson’s administration. In the fall of 1936 he was elected by the largest majority ever polled for governor in a Minnesota election. In 1938 Benson was ousted and the Republican Stassen elected by the largest majority ever polled except one, the record set by Benson two years before!

Following this catastrophic defeat, the Association called a post-election convention, in January of 1939, to cure the ills of the party.

Pre-convention maneuvers showed that the “All-Party” politicians and conservative labor leaders planned to use the Stalinists as scapegoats for the defeat. That convention was reported in this magazine. (Walter Bierce, A Party Without a Program, The New International, March 1939.)

At the 1939 convention the party bureaucrats and labor bureaucrats, in close teamwork, finished off the Farmer-Labor Party. They used up the whole convention with a sham battle on the Stalinist issue, and protected their own records by keeping out every word about program. The convention did nothing but adopt a “purge” rule against the Stalinists, which nobody took seriously.

The role of the labor officialdom appears in the St. Paul Union Advocate, in its issue of February 2, 1939:

On no less than half a dozen occasions the majority of the Ramsey county (St. Paul) delegates were on the point of walking out of the convention in a body. Had they withdrawn from the convention it would not have been for the purpose of holding a rump convention, but to definitely wash their hands of the Farmer-Labor Party.

And how the labor skates were urging the unions to that conclusion!

A few days later the Duluth Central Labor Political Committee withdrew from the Farmer-Labor Association. That’s what the committee had been created for – to withdraw. A general union exodus followed, leaving the Association machinery in the hands of the Stalinists, in spite of the “purge.”

In the Minnesota election of 1942 the union bureaucrats went the farthest in open support of Stassen, paying off because the latter used every resource of state machinery down to his State Labor Conciliator in order to force the Minneapolis drivers into Tobin’s AFL union, prohibiting a vote on whether they preferred 544 CIO, under the leadership of the Minnesota section of the Socialist Workers Party who had built the drivers union. Their hands trembling with gratitude, these skates rushed labor endorsements to Stassen, and Joe Ball, and any other Republican who would accept a labor endorsement.

In the 1942 general election the Farmer-Labor nominee, Hjalmar Peterson, a weak candidate of a split movement, with no organized union support, still polled 38 percent of the vote.

That was the last Farmer-Labor campaign. In 1944 the Farmer-Labor Association was merged into the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The merger was a Stalinist bureaucratic move from start to finish, perpetrated in order to demonstrate loyalty to Roosevelt. It was not a Minnesota plan, but part of the same world-wide Stalinist maneuver that brought the formal burial of the Third International, and the dissolution of the American Communist Party at the time.

When we sum up the lessons of Minnesota’s labor party certain main points stand out:

  1. Minnesota’s experience refutes the assertion that the two party system of politics is “natural” to the United States. The two-party system was breached when class issues were raised. Conditions for labor party development were not highly favorable, as the collapse of the movement in the rest of the country showed. Yet the class division in politics turned out to be the natural one, so natural and so strong that even this isolated, distorted, diluted and crippled working class party hung on for a quarter of a century and won victories, and it took the reactionary period of the Second World War and the abysmal treachery of the Stalinists to kill it.
  2. The Minnesota experience gives evidence against the proposition that a national labor party in America, in this period, could settle down into a stable, bureaucratic labor machine, holding the workers in line by distributing a few reformist crumbs, like the labor and Socialist parties of Europe in an earlier period. In Minnesota there was no such stable relationship between the members and the conservative labor leaders. The bureaucrats were willing enough; all they wanted was to settle down. But they couldn’t find a way to manage it. They had to settle down with Stassen.

    Labor parties hardened into stable reformist machines in Europe in the upswing of capitalism, during a lengthy period when the ruling class had some degree of security and some substantial economic concessions to offer the workers. The labor party movement in the United States by contrast, comes when capitalism and its class relations are at a later stage, a higher level.

    This same high level of class relations, which makes the first steps slow, will greatly aid the party once it gets a start. The character of the times will not help the bureaucrats in their efforts to turn the 1abor party into an efficient brake to hold back the workers.
  3. The Minnesota movement scored its greatest successes when the workers took the leadership. The workers had to act for their own class program, not only free from capitalist politics, but free from non-working class influences in the party’s ranks. In the coming national labor party the workers will find the same paramount need to build working class independence.

Events will confirm the need for independent working class political action and help them in this task. The new national labor party movement will develop in a stormier period of economic crisis, and with a more advanced working class than existed in America at the time of the previous national labor party movement. The achievements of the Minnesota workers under much less favorable conditions have shown the tremendous power latent in the American working class, only waiting for a chance to find expression in political growth and struggle.

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