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The New International, March 1939


Walter Beirce

A Party Without a Program


From The New International, Vol.5 No.3, March 1939, pp.74-78.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE STATE CONVENTION of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association spent the two days of its session in St. Paul, January 27th and 28th, without giving any attention to the tasks of a working class party. It failed to adopt a program to help the farmers and workers of Minnesota in the capitalist crisis. Not one item was even considered that had any bearing on the immediate demands, to say nothing of a long time program, of the workers of the state.

The convention met after a split in the party and a stunning defeat. A challenging program, answering the needs of the workers, clearly was necessary to rally the Farmer-Labor forces for re-building the party. But the convention ignored this, made no analysis of the reasons for the defeat and no attempt to fix the responsibility. Nothing was proposed to set a new goal for the party or change its course.

Now “this was odd”, because it is not quite the habit of Farmer-Laborites. Conventions in recent years have given less and less attention to program, but this was the first to hit zero. Former, conventions have contained a strong current of criticism of the party leadership, seldom breaking into the open, but held down only by the patronage power and systematic management of the large bloc of state employees among the delegates. This year there was no patronage, and state employees, if still employed, discreetly stayed home. Yet the convention produced no protest against the old course, and no change of program.

The fact is that the Communist issue stole the show, and convention leaders managed to make it the whole show. The delegates were fed up with the manoeuvres and disruption of the Stalinists and determined to get rid of them. The FLP leaders seized this sentiment and turned it into a futile “purge” which occupied the whole time of the convention, to the exclusion of the other issues that are life and death questions for the Farmer-Labor movement, problems that must be solved before the movement can reorganize or even rid itself of the Stalinists. The purge served as a substitute for real convention business. The assumption was that the presence of the Stalinists explained the party’s defeat and that the drive against them served as the needed change of policy. Feeling against the Stalinists ran so high that this accomplished its purpose of diverting the attention of Farmer-Laborites from the party managers and their share in the policies that have led the movement to defeat.

For real substance we must start not with the convention proceedings, but the unfinished business, the situation in the Farmer-Labor movement with which the convention had the duty of dealing.

The Farmer-Labor Party was built for class action on a program of concrete class grievances, and was founded on the doctrine that no good could come out of either of the old parties. During the eight years in which the party has held the governor’s office and state administration in Minnesota there has been a steady drift away from independent working class politics and toward alliance with the old capitalist parties. Since this ran counter to the very reason for existence of a Farmer-Labor movement it met strong resistance from Farmer-Laborites, and had to be put over slowly. The alliance started with the formation of “All-Party Committees” to support the candidate for governor. These were committees of prominent “progressive Republicans and Democrats” who endorsed the candidate because of his “outstanding personal qualifications”. They were supposed to attract voters from the other parties, on the basis that the candidate’s Farmer-Laborism didn’t really mean much, and he should be elected as a good man. The All-Party supporters worked as an additional campaign committee, independent of the Farmer-Labor Association, and graciously accepted state jobs after election.

The fight to maintain independent political action largely took the form of struggle between the “Farmer-Laborites” and the “All-Partyites”. Farmer-Laborites didn’t like the watering down of the program. They didn’t like the appointment of old-party politicians to policy-forming state jobs. And they didn’t like the rewarding of All-Partyites with non-policy-forming jobs in preference to Farmer-Laborites who had done the real campaign work. The patronage issue took the spotlight in this dispute, each group accusing the other of being interested only in state jobs. That this charge was true in some cases must not hide the fact that it was untrue in many more. Most of the fighters on what was miscalled the patronage issue were trying to maintain the Farmer-Labor movement against old party inroads.

Next the All-Partyites began to move into the Association, and the labels became less clear. There was a perpetual but losing struggle against the increasing power of state employees in the Farmer-Labor Clubs and central committees of the Association. In the affiliated trade unions this process did not go on, because no one can lightly join a union to get a state job pr advance a political career. Trade union members are selected first because they are workers in the industry. But this change did produce a widening gap between the policies of the unions and the policies of the Farmer-Labor Clubs in the association.

In general, within the clubs, and between the clubs and the unions, the old-time Farmer-Laborites felt that they were losing out to “band-wagon climbers” and “carpet-baggers” who had joined only for state jobs.

In 1935, when the Stalinists began moving into the Farmer-Labor Party they were actually welcomed by some militant Farmer-Laborites who expected them to be allies for a working-class course and against entanglements with the old parties. It soon developed that entanglement with the old parties was exactly the Stalinist program.

In the 1936 election the, All-Party movement blossomed into a complete coalition, with FLP support for Roosevelt traded for the withdrawal of the Democratic candidate for governor. Needless to say, this deal was made without consulting any part of the Farmer-Labor Association, and it sent a shock through the movement. But the Stalinists stepped into the breach with “left-wing” approval of this step toward “unity”.

The Stalinists proved to be the most complete All-Partyites and the most consummate political manipulators in the movement. In local politics they did not hesitate to form a bloc with anyone who would join with them, no matter how reactionary his record in the Farmer-Labor movement, and it frequently was the discredited reactionary who had lost all other support who turned to them. Whenever they gained any influence over a job-dispensing position they used patronage ruthlessly to build their faction, regardless of the damage to morale in the Farmer-Labor movement and the unions.

In a surprisingly short time the Stalinists won enough influence in the Farmer-Labor Association to have a powerful bargaining position. They were favored by events. The death of Floyd Olson left several crown princes, each trying to build a machine of his own. With a bloc in the movement under control, the Stalinists could command favors from politicians eager to gather support for themselves and away from rivals. The Stalinists actually were able to give out a good many state jobs to build their organization.

In addition the Association was wide open for an organized fraction. Basically the Association is a federation of Farmer-Labor Clubs, in city and country, and affiliated trade unions. As has been mentioned, it was hard for Stalinists or state employees to capture unions, although the Stalinists did set up some paper unions. But anyone could pay his $1.50 dues and join a ward or township club. The constitution barred from membership anyone “advocating change by means of force or by means of revolution”, but the Stalinists either denied membership in the Communist Party or pointed out the obvious fact that it doesn’t advocate revolution any longer. Many Farmer-Labor Clubs were taken over by the Stalinists and their allies. The process was helped along by filibustering which tired the old members and drove them out.

But, besides trade unions, any organization “accepting the program” could affiliate. And did. The Stalinists set up paper locals of the Workers’ Alliance, workers’ orders, reading circles, culture clubs, affiliated them (for a per capita of two cents a month per member) and swamped the central committee and conventions with delegates.

These paper affiliates were most active in the cities, but they also reorganized many rural counties. Few rural counties had had affiliates, since the unions are almost all in the cities; but the new affiliates were everywhere. They could affiliate cheaply just before a county convention, and claim any membership they pleased, since one month’s per capita tax for a hundred members was only two dollars. The clubs could not compete with this, since the club dues for a hundred members came to $150.00. The affiliates and All-Partyites would combine and vote out the Farmer-Labor Association officers.

Afterwards the Farmer-Laborites found that the new-comers were systematically favored by confederates higher up, not only on policies but with jobs in the highway department.

This type of “reorganization” drove thousands of Farmer-Laborites to the Republicans or to Hjalmar Petersen. But it left the Stalinists in control of what was left.

The neatness, efficiency – and economy – of this attack must command a certain type of mild admiration, tempered by the reflection that it always takes less brains to wreck an organization than to build one. But the damage in the Farmer-Labor movement passes all calculation. I have used a rural example here because the reaction in the farming areas had results of special importance, but the same sort of thing took place in the cities.

The Farmer-Labor organizations thus fell into three classes:

  1. Trade union affiliates. Least open to capture by politicians, state employees or Stalinist fractions. The unions are the most dependable working-class base. Theoretically, affiliated farm organizations could provide a rural representation similarly selected on a non-political basis, but actually farm organizations have not affiliated.
  2. Farmer-Labor Clubs, in city and country. These are the membership organizations, very much open to penetration but containing a large proportion of straight Farmer-Laborites, especially in the rural counties. For the state as a whole the state employees were more important than the Stalinists in the clubs.
  3. Paper affiliates. Stalinist fakes.

In this organizational picture the Stalinist moves take a good deal of space to describe, but they must not be given more than their share of importance. The movement by party politicians toward the All-Party policy was under way long before the Stalinists entered the movement, and organized management of state employees was choking off the protest in the ranks against the alliance with the New Deal. The Stalinists only brought a new efficiency to the manoeuvres and a new pseudo-radical excuse for the line. Their fraction work was conspicuous enough to be important, and to account for the convention’s preoccupation with them, but it did not start or change the trend.

Even the success of the Stalinist fraction work had larger explanations. After all, Minnesota Farmer-Laborites are not exactly novices in politics. The Northwest has gone through a tremendous political education in the past twenty years, and is in some respects an advanced section of the country. Typical Farmer-Laborites may not know all the fine systems of fraction work or how to pad representation, but they are quite capable of running right straight over anybody who tries to stop them from doing something they really want to do, with a fine disregard for any fake representation.

At bottom the trouble lay in the fact that the movement wasn’t really doing anything. It wasn’t in motion for a program that really touched the interests of the workers and farmers. If it had been, manoeuvres and filibusters would have accomplished nothing. The movement would have shrugged them off.

The real explanation for events in the Farmer-Labor organization lay in the Farmer-Labor program. The militant goal of class politics had been first diluted and then abandoned. The movement turned from problems of unemployment, low wages, low farm prices, debt, taxes and foreclosures. It turned to alliances to win elections, fronts to gain votes, deals to get jobs. In that atmosphere workers and farmers lose interest, and they don’t put up a real fight to keep the organization in line. They may drop out entirely and leave the management to the careerists.

The Stalinists succeeded because their program fitted. They preached surrender to the New Deal, and that was exactly the wish of the party strategists. It was easy to ride on Roosevelt’s coat tail, but you had to run awfully fast to keep up with insurgent workers and farmers. The party leaders could work nicely with the Stalinists, because their programs fitted exactly, except that the Stalinists, on some issues, such as the question of war preparations, were even ahead of the party leaders in the race to the right. So they got along. Even most of the politicians who denounced the Stalinists at the convention had worked harmoniously with them beforehand.

In the 1938 elections the Farmer-Labor Party stood as the state representative of the New Deal, no more. Farmers and workers, cheated by the New Deal, were offered nothing better by the FLP The 1938 convention adopted a pussy-footing platform, carefully toned down to offend no middle-class votes. Farmer-Labor leaders admit that the Republican platform was “more liberal” than their own. The Stalinists even insist on it, as showing that the Republican victory was a triumph for Farmer-Labor principles! (This also serves the Stalinists as a part of their campaign since the election to worm in among the “progressive Republicans” to gain influence in the new state administration.) At any rate, what the Republicans did worked. Their candidate for governor, Stassen, was elected by a majority which nearly broke the record. The record had been set two years before by the Farmer-Labor candidate for governor. That gives the measure of the political overturn on which this convention had to tally the reckoning.

The convention also had to reckon with the disorganized state of the movement, which was shown by a general lack of interest, by Farmer-Laborites dropping out of clubs, and unions leaving the Association.

The movement had suffered’ an open split the year before in the Minneapolis city primary election, with the labor unions and some ward dubs behind one candidate, and the Stalinist paper affiliates and other ward clubs supporting the other. The state organization and state administration supported the latter candidate, and he won the nomination, but by a slim margin. In the state primary in the spring of 1938 thousands of Farmer-Laborites deserted in a conservative direction to vote for Hjalmar Petersen, who was not supported by the unions. With the aid of votes from Republicans and Democrats who went into the Farmer-Labor primary to beat Benson, Hjalmar Petersen nearly won the nomination.

By the time of the 1939 convention, interest had gone so low that many unions didn’t even bother to send delegates.

The politicians had their own view of the cause of all this, and their own program. In spite of their frantic efforts to be respectable, they had had the “Communist issue” pinned on them during the campaign. So they laid the blame, and also expressed their lack of real disagreement with the Communist line, in these terms,

“If they’d stay in the background and work they’d be all right, but they always crowd up in front, and it ruins us. We’ve got to change our window-dressing!”

The background and the problem have been sketched, at more length than the report of the convention will take, but that is proper since the convention was so empty of anything but warnings. Before going to the convention proceedings let’s stop at the door of the St. Paul city auditorium. Two programs are being presented here.

One is in the Minnesota Appeal, issued by the Minnesota section of the Socialist Workers Party. It analyzes the causes of the defeat, and presents a positive program as the basis for reorganization, saying, in part:

“Many reasons are given by Farmer-Labor politicians for the defeat. Most of them have a smell. They are alibis. They are not the real reasons.

“In our open letter to Governor Benson long before the election we tried hard to get the leaders to face the facts.

“We said, ‘The truth is that the FLP is in mortal danger of a defeat at the hands of reaction, unless the workers and farmers can be armed with a program that will spur them to the utmost efforts.’

“The Socialist Workers Party then made twelve proposals about housing, public works, unemployment, farm prices, Stalinist adventurism and war. On this page that program is repeated.”

At another point:

“The Farmer-Labor Party has been tied like a little dog to the New Deal.

“When the New Deal went down, the FLP crashed with it.”

At another point, speaking of the fight the politicians were preparing on the Stalinists:

“Now here is the irony of this teapot tempest: The Johnson-Lommen group who are trying to throw out the Stalinists, propose the party to stay conservative. They want even closer unholy a program identical with that of the Stalinists! They both want wedlock with the New Deal. They want to gag the trade unions.


Be it noted that this was the needed basis both for re-building the party and getting rid of the Stalinists, It would rebuild the party because it offered the things the workers and farmers needed, and would rally them for action. It would get rid of the Stalinists because it would break with them on program, not just by putting a new rule in place of the old rule which had proved useless. A Farmer-Labor Party fighting for an independent working class program and against Roosevelt’s war program would be a party without the Stalinists. They would march right out and no rules would be needed.

Another program is presented at the door, in the Communist Daily Record. The headline tells it in a glance, Convention to Rally Progressives for New Deal.

The convention was called to order at noon and opened with a preliminary report of the credentials committee, revealing that 57 delegates had been challenged under the rules, and the committee members differed on procedure. Thus the convention started with a debate on the Communist issue. The minority report, which seemed to promise the more severe slap on the wrist to the Stalinists, was pressed by politicians and conservative trade union officials, on the ground that the Communists were disrupters, undermining the Association. The Stalinists were not attacked as All-Partyites, as partisans of Roosevelt politics in the Farmer-Labor movement, or as war-mongers; in fact, their political principles were not mentioned, except that these speakers sometimes referred to them as the “left-wingers”. Stalinist spokesmen also avoided any mention of political principles and made no attempt to defend the faith that was in them. A few made pleas for “unity”; the rest based their case on Roberts’ Rules of Order, deluging the chair with points of order and privilege, substitute motions, motions to table, etc.

After a long barren wrangle the anti-Stalinist minority report was adopted by a substantial but not overwhelming majority. The rest of the session was consumed with financial reports, adoption of convention rules and election of convention officers.

One day gone.

The session the following morning started with what could have been a discussion of program, since some time was allowed for a resolutions committee report, to fill in while the delegates were gathering. The committee brought forth nothing but routine resolutions re-affirming some former FLP legislative planks. Then came a long collective security resolution, praising the Lima conference, and calling for united action by the democracies for economic sanctions against fascist aggressor nations. From the lengthy debate I quote Stalinist speeches: “Japan will become a leading industrial nation and a competitor of the United States”, and “What good will it do the United States if we let Japan conquer the world?” And I quote anti-Stalinist speeches:

“Let’s be cautious. We’ve gotten into a lot of trouble at these conventions by passing ill-considered resolutions. Of course I’m sympathetic to the Loyalists in Spain, but we have to remember that there are a lot of Catholic votes in this state and we need those votes. Let’s mind our own business.”

The debate stayed at the level of War for Democracy and American Industry versus straight political cowardice. Finally a motion to bring the resolution to a vote failed by a narrow margin and the convention moved to the report of the constitution committee.

This was to be the big business, the reorganization of the association. The opportunity to set the stage for a real reorganization, on program, had been passed by, but the movement was going to change itself all around by amending its constitution.

The first amendment changed the statement of purpose, which had read,

“Its purpose shall be to unite the members of all farmer, labor and other kindred organizations, and unorganized elements which support independent political action by economic groups, into a political association.” [Italics mine, W.B.]

The committee proposed:

“Its purpose shall be to form a political association to carry on an extensive program of education and organization incidental to participation in the political campaigns of the Farmer-Labor movement.”

All-Partyism for sure; even the words “independent political action” were to be pruned from the constitution. Possibly they stood in the way of rallying for the New Deal. Then Dewey Johnson (of the Johnson-Lommen group, organizing the fight to expel the Stalinists) proposed from the floor that the word “political” be struck out and “educational” substituted. An “educational association” for the “educational campaigns”! Truly these anti-Stalinists had a program identical with the Stalinists!

The next amendment, aimed at the Stalinist paper affiliates, restricted membership to Farmer-Labor Clubs and “chartered trade unions”. Thoroughly good and much needed. A little rough on any real unemployed organization but the plague of paper Workers’ Alliance locals left the convention no choice. The Stalinists fought hard for an amendment to include unemployed organizations and ladies’ auxiliaries. The trade union and rural delegates opposed the amendment vigorously and it lost 2 to 1. The amendment carried as introduced.

The debate on this issue brought out the most ominous sign in the whole convention. Some rural delegates stated that there was sentiment among the rural clubs for eliminating all affiliates from membership. That is, they wanted to put out the unions as well as the Stalinist paper affiliates. Private discussion among delegates revealed more of this than was expressed from the floor; and the feeling was not confined to conservative farmers, it was held by some honest-to-goodness militant Farmer-Laborites.

This was the fruit of the “capture” policy of the Stalinist paper organizations in the rural counties. These farmers came into direct contact only with these affiliates, and not with genuine trade unions. At conventions it was the delegates from Stalinist affiliates who held the floor and made themselves conspicuous, and obnoxious. They had little opportunity to observe that the genuine trade union affiliates stood at the opposite pole on policy from these Stalinist stooges. So they had been driven to the program of eliminating the trade unions from the Farmer-Labor Party, whereas the best way to accomplish what these delegates really wanted was to increase the representation of the unions in the party.

Probably the main achievement of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor movement, far outweighing any of its legislative accomplishments, is the alliance it has built between militant farmers and workers. This alliance was very real, and demonstrated itself in action many times. Driving these two groups apart is nearly the most serious damage that the Stalinists could possibly do to the cause of the workers and farmers in Minnesota.

Fortunately the farm and labor alliance is not being left to the Stalinists or the fortunes of the Farmer-Labor political movement. The Farmer-Cooperative-Labor Council, organized by progressive trade unionists and farm leaders, is doing good work in cementing the alliance tighter. But the anti-union feeling among some rural delegates at this convention should be written in capital letters as a warning sign of the destruction that unprincipled shysters can produce in the workers’ political movement.

During all of this time the 57 protested delegates (about half of them protested as Stalinists and the rest protested by the Stalinists) had been barred from the floor pending investigation by the credentials committee. The convention suspended its other business at this point (mid-afternoon of the second day) to hear the final report. The committee report seated all the delegates except about a dozen who had signed a petition to put Browder on the ballot in 1936. The evidence against these (almost all insignificant figures) was not heavy, but at least it was definite and in writing, so it would serve as the much-needed window dressing purge. All of the purgees who spoke in their own defense denied being Communists, and made no defense of the Communist party. Advocates of the Committee report, the same conservative unionists and politicians heard from before, spoke for it with as much vigor as if the report did not seat a large number of active Communists, while unseating a handful of minor stooges. The report was adopted, 383 to 158.

Back to the constitution, the convention turned to the next amendment, reading:

“Provided, however, that no person who is a supporter of any other political party than the Farmer-Labor Party shall be admitted to membership. No adherent of Communism, Fascism, or Nazism may be a member of, or hold any position in connection with, the activities of the Association or the Party.”

This was the big purge. The rule against Communists was to be replaced by another rule. The Communists were to be banned by name, by bell, book and candle, and everything else but – political program.

Now was the time for the Stalinists to shoot their bolt, and they did it. One of their spokesmen arose and moved to amend by adding the word “Trotskyism” to the list! This was the fight and it was all the fight that they made!

After some debate the chairman ruled that the word “Communism” included “Trotskyism”, so the amendment was out of order as not changing the motion!

The amendment in its original form was adopted by the overwhelming vote of 479 to 52. From the size of this vote it appears that some Stalinists voted for their own expulsion, and so they did. For instance, in Hennepin County (Minneapolis) the Stalinists in ward clubs and paper affiliates had gained control of the organization, and had restricted the trade union representation, so that Hennepin County’ vote was heavily Stalinist. Hennepin County voted 57½ to 27½ against the credentials committee report expelling the dozen delegates. But Hennepin County voted 80 to 5 in favor of this amendment to the constitution!

Why? Discussion in the Hennepin County caucus reveals the reason. “Then this includes the Trotskyites. Let’s vote for it.”

Unprincipled but realistic. The rule won’t hurt the Stalinists, and will certainly be applied against real radicals and progressives.

This constituted the purge and the convention business. One other amendment deserves comment.

“And no person holding an appointive paid position in any department of the state government may be a delegate to any county, district or state convention of the Farmer- Labor Association.”

A little late, since the Republican state administration had already taken care of this matter, but it stands as a touching monument to the long fight against state employee control in the association.

The convention then elected a chairman, vice-chairman and secretary-treasurer of the Association for the coming year and adjourned. The state committee, the governing body between conventions, had already been selected at district conventions prior to the state convention. It contains its full share of stooges who have cooperated completely with the Stalinists.

People in Minnesota, as elsewhere, are still interested in wages and hours, farm prices and debts and taxes, security against unemployment and old age, and peace. This convention, gripped by a faction fight and touching none of these things, could hardly be expected to arouse much enthusiasm. Nor did it. Even the “victors” are hardly interested in what they have won.

Events since have shown the futility of the purge and the failure of the convention to solve the crisis in the movement.

Hennepin County held a convention three days afterward and followed the letter of the law. Paper affiliates were seated only as “fraternal” delegates. Yet the Stalinists elected their full slate of county Association officers. Supervising representatives from the state committee sat in attendance, impotent.

On February 6, the Duluth Central Labor Political Committee, the political arm of the Duluth Federated Trades Assembly, formally withdrew from the Farmer-Labor Association. The Assembly itself had withdrawn the year before. This makes the separation complete.

More of this sentiment in organized labor is shown by the St. Paul Union Advocate, of February 2:

“On no less than a half 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.”

The worst feature of this potential Farmer-Labor breakup is that disillusioned Farmer-Laborites, in most cases, do not seem to recognize that the failure of the movement is due to its pronounced right wing course. Their reaction is to go conservative or to lose interest in politics altogether. The unions, except those under conscious progressive leadership which offers a positive program as a solution, are retreating back to “reward your friends and punish your enemies” – the blind alley they abandoned twenty years ago in Minnesota.

Many real Farmer-Labor militants are confused by the factional line-up. They see progressive trade unionists and Marxist revolutionists fighting the Stalinists, but they also see a host of political careerists and false-alarms doing the same thing. These militants shy away from that camp because it contains the same All-Party politicians that they have always fought. The best asset of the Stalinists is the fact that they have some enemies to be proud of. Their recent close collaboration with these same enemies gets less attention, as does the fact that their program and actions put them even farther to the right than these conservatives. Also overlooked is the fact that the Marxists and progressives are fighting their conservative so-called allies on program.

Making clear the real alignment of forces is one of the tasks in Minnesota. The militants who are for a class program will not rally to what seems to be the camp of the conservatives.

And they must be rallied, for the present retreat is fast wiping out the gains in political mobilization which the Minnesota workers and farmers have won by a hard fight through many years.

The Stalinist issue can be handled, but it can only be handled as what it is, an incidental obstacle in the fight for the program that workers and farmers need.

The 1939 convention did not handle the issue, or any other. It leaves only a lesson in the futility of trying to base working class politics on organizational moves instead of program.

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