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E.R. Frank

Labor’s Perspectives and the Meaning
of Truman’s Victory

(15 November 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 46, 15 November 1948, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

By a peculiar and unforeseen turn of events, the Democratic Party has been swept back into office and the crisis of the two-party system has for the time being been transferred to the Republican Party.

The Democratic Party, split on both the right and left at the time of its Philadelphia convention, facing what appeared an inescapable defeat and a sharpening party crisis, has instead – confounding all the analysts – gained the support of the majority of the voters and the powers of government and patronage.

Let us re-check our analysis in the light of the election figures to see where we were wrong and where we were right so that we may more accurately draw the reality of the political picture in America.

Democratic Crisis

We said last summer that the Democratic party was in a crisis and that this crisis, stemming from the conflict of hostile social groups within the party, was brought on by the mounting difficulties and drive to reaction of American imperialism. “New Dealism” – the policy of granting concessions to the working people – became a luxury that hard-pressed American capitalism could no, longer afford. The period of the “cold war” with Russia became likewise the period of the Taft-Hartley law, witchhunts, spy scares, labor injunctions, union busting and lowered living standards at home. Naturally, this policy, carried through under the Truman administration, alienated the labor and liberal forces, who were becoming increasingly antagonistic to the Democratic Party and groping for new political mediums of expression.

This saw one manifestation in the split of Wallace, who with the help of the Stalinists, launched his “Gideon’s Army” and attempted to fill the political vacuum created by the groundswell of opposition developing in the American people. Truman’s last minute attempt to cozen the labor end liberal forces by his civil rights program only seemed to make matters worse: The working people and the liberals remained skeptical while the declaration provoked the Southern rebellion climaxed by the Dixiecrat split. So matters stood at the time of the Philadelphia convention of the Democratic Party. Thus far, our analysis of the events appears to have been more or less correct.

To concretize this in terms of parties and votes, it is reasonable to assume that had the election taken place right at this point last July, Truman would have been defeated, Dewey would have keen elected, Wallace would have polled some three to five million votes.

Important Shift

Obviously an important political shift occurred between July and November. What was it and what was the reason for it?

The election figures show: 1. That the bulk of the Wallace vote – say two million – shifted over to Truman; 2. That an important segment of the farm belt vote changed over from Republican to Truman. 3. That the labor vote was successfully mobilized behind the Democratic party.

Let us begin first with the last and most important point.

After moving heaven and earth to dump Truman and have the Democratic Party run a less compromised figure, the trade union bureaucracy reluctantly accepted bis candidacy and began in dead earnest to line up their membership back of the Democratic Party. Truman, for his part, deserted by his Democratic associates, the big city machines and the Big Business backers, with all of the dopesters and pollsters freely predicting his defeat, embarked on a course of desperation. For sheer demagogy and brass, it was a performance unprecedented in the memory of living persons.

As Truman’s campaign got underway, it became obvious that his only chance was in arousing the labor vote and he pitched his speeches and proposals primarily to the workers. By the same token, the trade union leaders, who at the Philadelphia convention had less voice and influence in determining candidates than at the 1944 convention, emerged as the main organizational and social force behind Truman.

The results prove that they succeeded beyond their fondest hopes in gathering up the labor vote. They not only were decisive in reelecting Truman, but in giving the Democrats both houses of Congress, electing a string of Democratic governors and defeating over 100 Congressmen who had voted for the Taft-Hartley Act. The combination, in other words, of Truman’s demagogic social progressive program, the capitulation of the trade union leaders to Truman and their campaign in mobilizing the working masses behind the Democrats, was the determinant in catapulting the latter back into power and in the process swamping the Wallaceites. The “Gideon’s Army” is no longer a significant political force and the Stalinist attempt to build a Peoples Front with themselves as the powerhouse has failed dismally.

The Reasons

What accounts for the astounding success of the trade union bureaucracy in getting out the labor vote in contrast to their in effectiveness in 1946? What accounts further for the shift in sentiment between July and November?

The ruling plutocracy, in the words of Walter Lippman, “overplayed its hand” and the Republican Party, mistaking the temper of the masses, openly associated itself with the program of reaction. That is the explanation in a nut shell. The Republican brain-trusters misread their partial and temporary victory in the immediate post-war period as spelling a mounting wave of reaction which they could safely ride in much the same manner as they did after the first world war. They did succeed in thrusting the country into a wave of reaction and embroiling the labor movement in red-baiting and fratricidal warfare. But they went too far and they went too fast.

At the same time that their reactionary campaign seemed to be proceeding with impunity on all fronts, the Republicans were disgracing themselves in the eyes of the working masses as the party of Big Business, which stood for high prices, outrageous profits, union busting, no housing, no civil rights and preparation for war. Reaction was proceeding with impunity, not because of the support or even acquiescense of the workers, the Negroes, the lower middle classes, but because the working masses had no avenue of protest or adequate means to break the pattern.

As a matter of fact, the Republican victory of 1946 was not secured because of growing influence amongst the workers. What happened was simply that a section of the middle elites, given no independent program or leadership by the labor movement, swung to the Republicans as a means of casting a protest vote. And many workers didn't bother to vote in the elections, because after Truman’s strikebreaking and turn to reaction, they could not see very much difference between the Democrats and Republicans.

But unlike the deep-going political shift after the first, world war, this one represented a short-lived ebb, which quickly gave way to a resurgent liberal sentiment consequent upon the unfolding of the Big Business program of repression and reaction.

Turn of Events

Not only was this shift of sentiment far greater than we suspected or understood, but by a novel turn of events, the most discredited politician in the country, who had broken more strikes and secured more injunctions than any other President, became its chief beneficiary. By an unforeseen twist of circumstances it temporarily assumed the form of Trumanite power, only because of the absence of any other practical channel for mass expression and organization.

The mechanics of this bizarre development are now – after the event – completely clear to us.

To recapitulate: The very isolation and desperation of the Democratic party as it came into its Philadelphia convention, plus the threat implicit in the Wallace defection on the left in the loss of labor and Negro support, led to the adoption of the civil rights plank and the consequent split of the extreme Southern bourbon wing. This, in turn,-giving the Democratic party another shove to the left, led to the attempt to hypnotize the electorate again with the slogans and watchwords of Roosevelt’s all-but-buried New Deal. Then, as the campaign progressed and the pollsters continued to turn thumbs down on the Democrats, Truman threw all restraint to the winds and took over bodily the program of the AFL and CIO, even trying to steal Wallace’s thunder – including his “peace” plank of man-to-man dealings with Stalin.

Social Demagogy

This campaign of unrestrained social demagogy gained all the more in effectiveness as it stood out in such contrast to the speeches of Dewey, who openly defended the works of the 80th Congress and associated himself with the Taft-Hartley law.

Thus Truman – under whose three-year administration all the evils had taken place – was able to present himself as the opposition critic fighting for a liberal policy against the insidious designs and foul conspiracies of the Wall Street cliques represented by the Republican party. And thus, the trade union and numerous Negro leaders and their FDR liberal allies helped enlist the working masses behind him.

It was a triumph for the policy of the “lesser evil.” The mass ferment which had been building up was successfully channelled in support of Truman, so much so, that at the end, even a sizeable section of Wallace supporters decided they could achieve their aims better by voting for Truman.

The additional factor that helped cinch Truman’s victory was the definite shift to the Democrats of a small but important part of the rural vote in the midwest farm belt. The break in farm prices made the farmers fearful of a possible elimination of the government price-support program. The direct tie-up of the Republican high-command with the eastern bankers and the suspicion that an attempt would be made to reduce farm prices sufficed to reverse the farmers’ swing toward the GOP back again toward the Democrats. In these states Truman received a vote from two to six per cent higher than Roosevelt did in 1944.

Truman Victory

The Truman victory has revealed many things that were obscure before and has abruptly altered the political climate of the country.

First and foremost, the labor movement has displayed a colossal power and prowess in organizing the workers for political as well as trade union aims. In Roosevelt’s day, it was never entirely clear whether the trade union bureaucracy was mobilizing the vote behind Roosevelt, or just moving in behind his coattails. There is no ambiguity about the class line-ups or what is taking place any longer. “Labor did it,” were Truman’s first words after the election. There is no doubt about it and everybody knows if. The labor movement stands at the pinnacle of its strength and the election results will imbue it with an unprecedented self-confidence. We can surely look forward to a new insurgency on the part of labor, a further process of politicalization and a continued and augmented leftward swing.

Next, the political climate has changed overnight. We will now witness a brief postlude – an autumnal flowering – of the New Deal.

New Party

It would be wrong, however, to imagine that the Democratic Party that has emerged from the 1948 electoral victory is the same party as that of the first Truman administration or even of Roosevelt’s New Deal. True, the labor movement had an alliance with the Roosevelt administration, but it was the supplicant in that alliance, it was the “country cousin" of the Roosevelt family. Now, under the blows of social necessity and the imperative need for adaptation, the Democratic party has transformed itself into a special American variation of the European Peoples Fronts. The alliance of the working class with the liberal bourgeoisie has here been consummated in truly unique and original fashion.

In contrast to Western Europe, the working class still has no party of its own but operates through the medium of its trade unions and their political emanations. The liberal bourgeoisie likewise has no party of its own but operates as a loose conglomeration through various committees. And both belong to and operate within the framework of the Democratic Party – one of the two organizations controlled and dominated by Big Business. Moreover, this Peoples Front was not forged in a revolutionary period to forestall a rising revolution and channelize it back into capitalist paths but represented an opportunist electoral combination designed to hurl back reaction and bring back the era of New Deal politics, while at the same time forestalling the rise of a new Labor Party. The labor leaders thus for the moment solved the crisis of the Democratic party, in return for which they will secure a few crumbs and a short breathing, spell for the labor movement.

Peoples Fronts

But we Marxists know from our study of the European Peoples Fronts and our knowledge of the social forces and their direction and aims in America how this new bizarre edition of the Peoples Front will operate and how it will perform under the stress of the contradiction of American imperialism and the sharpening class struggles. We know how the program of war preparations, huge military budgets, propping up dictators and tyrants abroad, ensuring high profits to the American monopolists must and will collide with the needs and aspirations of the American masses. The disillusionment of the people who supported Truman is bound to grow apace as they experience the gap between promise and performance. The ’48 electoral combination that swept Truman into power will begin cracking; the crisis of the Democratic party, postponed by the electoral victory, will again flare up and rage far more furiously than before, and will pave the way for the emergence of the solid labor political bloc – forged in this election – under its own banner and in its own name.

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