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Irving Howe

Vito Marcantonio’s Rise to Power

A Profile of a Political Demagogue

(25 November 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 47, 25 November 1946, pp. 3 & 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On the night before election, in the heart of East Harlem – that polyglot slum where poverty-stricken Puerto Rican and Italian families crowd into tiny apartments – there was a large mass-meeting. The man who shrieked over the loudspeaker was small, swarthy, his face pinched and sharp; he spoke in a torrent of words and shuttled from Italian to Spanish to English. Invariably he referred to his political opponents as “dose bums”; in the foreign languages he used less genteel expressions. He had a phenomenal ability to sustain his high-pitched harangue with which he pummelled his audience, occasionally breaking into hysterical falsetto. But there was no denying his effectiveness; his audience responded. The speaker was Vito Marcantonio, Congressman from New York’s 18th district, accomplice of Stalinism and therefore experienced political chameleon; former buddy of fascists; ruthless political boss and ally of Tammany Hall; and skilled, dangerous though limited political demagogue.


What makes Vito tick? Why has this cheap political trickster gained such a foothold in New York’s East Harlem – so powerful that despite a heavily-financed Republican campaign, on top of electoral gerrymandering which put a German and anti-Marcantonio area into his district, he was still able to win the recent election?

Marcantonio’s career is unique in American politics. Personally he is not very much; his mind is shallow and his personality lacks that boyish charm generally considered indispensable for the American politician. Yet he is the head of the New York County American Labor Party, has a strong influence in Tammany Hall and has built a powerful local political machine.

Marcantonio began, interestingly enough, as a protege of that falsetto windbag, F.H. La Guardia. When La Guardia was beginning to build his political fences in New York in preparation for defeating Tammany, he needed a slick lieutenant capable of corralling the foreign-language vote in East Harlem and of building a tight organization there on which La Guardia could count for support. Vito was the man. He did the job, but he did more; he began to build himself a personal machine. And like all political demagogues he was not too concerned about the political ideas he peddled.

In the early thirties Marcantonio flirted with the fascists. He was a frequent speaker before the Leonardo da Vinci art school, a front organization sponsored by Mussolini’s consul; he spoke at Columbus Day rallies of Italian fascist outfits; and on one occasion, March, 1936, he denounced the opponents of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia at the LaGuardia Political Club as “agents of the racketeering League of Nations.” At this meeting, reported the Italian daily, Il Progresso of March 9, 1936, Marcantonio’s entrance was greeted appropriately enough by the playing of Giovinezza, the fascist hymn. This was the man who was soon to become the darling of the Stalinists.

Marcantonio was clever enough to see, however, that if he continued to flirt with the fascists, he could gain the support only of that minority of New York’s Italian population which actively supported Mussolini. A political future required other approaches. He dropped the fascists and began fronting for the Stalinists. In retrospect, we can see how clever that was. For a man like Marcantonio there was little room in the conventional capitalist political outfits like Tammany Hall where seniority plays such an important role and where he would have patiently had to climb the ladder of wardheeling assignments. But for the Stalinists, Marcantonio was just right. He had so little interest in or respect for ideas that he was ready to parrot almost anything he was told. He was a talented demagogue capable of rousing the masses in his area, though quite ineffective in other sections. And he was building his machine.

Nature of Area

To understand Marcantonio’s machine, one must know something about the neighborhood in which he functions. It is one of the worst slum areas in Manhattan. Its population is largely Puerto Rican and Italian – the immigrant groups which have been least “Americanized” in the city. The Puerto Ricans came from a country which, as a result of the benevolence of U.S. imperialism, is a vast slum with the bitterly oppressed masses kept deliberately illiterate. Upon arrival in New York, they failed to find an economic niche for themselves, one reason for which was the constricting social, economic and education background with which they are cursed. They are therefore today a tightly- knit group, their children often speaking more Spanish than English; they are neither adapted to American ways nor have they succeeded in retaining an integral native culture.

As a result, they are particularly prey to superstition, fanatical religion and political demagogy – the latter usually exploiting their legitimate desires for Puerto Rican independence. Most of them work at the lowest paid menial tasks, the women slaving in the poorly paying and non-union artificial flower and dress sweatshops which dot the area. Only a minority of the men who work as seamen have achieved the status of skilled workers. But since their union is the National Maritime Union, which is controlled by the Stalinists, that too helps Marcantonio.

The Italian group in East Harlem is somewhat better off than the Puerto Ricans, though here too one finds the conflict between a tenacious but doomed alien culture and a poorly assimilated American culture. The first generation children of immigrants are therefore at home in neither. Among the Italians there is also a strong nationalist tie to the homeland and on which Marcantonio capitalizes.

East Harlem is quite separated from the rest of the city. There are few movie theaters; one can walk several blocks before being able to buy a newspaper. The neighborhood is inbred. Fraternal clubs and innumerable “cellar clubs” meet in dingy stores which are the center of political and social activity. All the parasitic vices of the slums flourish here among these people ground down by social conditions they cannot control or understand.

Marcantonio’s Appeal

It is on this base that Marcantonio builds. He is, it is true, the accomplice of Stalinism; but it is not primarily that which makes him the local hero. Vito is, first, the local boy who made good in big-time politics and that makes the folks feel proud. He is one of them; not an Irishman or a Jew or a Yankee.

Secondly, Vito panders to their political prejudices. When he speaks in Italian or Spanish, he is much less cautious than in English; then he makes the most blatantly chauvinistic appeals; knowing well how to tap the emotional nationalism of unassimilated and poor immigrants.

Thirdly, he appeals to them not only on a nationalistic but also on a religious basis. When the saints’ days come around – and there are many of them – East Harlem is lit up with colored bulbs strung across the streets; there are religious parades in the streets and Vito is right up in front, piously parading barefoot, singing hymns and carrying a taper.

Fourthly, Vito appeals to their rightly bitter sense of poverty. For his appeal is not merely nationalist; it is a kind of demagogic radical nationalism. That this radicalism is merely the latest Stalinist shift in line, vulgarized by Vito’s coarse intellect – well ... Vito figures, as Hitler once said, that nothing is too stupid for mass appeal. And so he screams and shouts at his audiences, consciously and cynically manipulating their emotions rather than discussing with them. If political agitation is, as Lenin once said, “a dialogue with the masses” – or rather if that is what it should be – then Marcantonio has, like other totalitarian demagogues of our time, given it another meaning: a directive to and a performance for the masses.

Fifthly and finally, Vito “plays ball” with the local clubs; he gets a job for one of the boys; he drops a little patronage among his drugstore cowboy agents. There is his organizational strength: the cellar clubs and fraternal organizations. While the Stalinists supply the political line and some experienced political workers, it is the local area which supplies the base of support. For the Stalinists as such are not very strong here; they have influence mainly on top of Marcantonio’s machine. And so we find this strange alliance between an unscrupulous political demagogue with the Stalinists, resting on local political patronage and not occasionally above the use of a little hoodlumism to smash dissidents.

Vito as Stalinist

Marcantonio has quite faithfully followed the Stalinist lead in national politics. When they were shouting that the Yanks Are Not Coming, Vito went along. After Stalin was forced into the war on the side of the Allies, the local Stalinists switched lines and became arden patriots. Marcantonio was a little slow on the pick-up, continuing the old line for a few months; but soon he was straightened out and became an ardent flag-waver.

This is the background of Marcantonio’s victory in the recent election. His opponent was a former army colonel, a stuffed shirt whose appeal was frankly snobbish. If seems to this writer quite unlikely, short of some cataclysmic event like a war with Russia, for Marcantonio to be ousted by a traditional capitalist party machine. Their blank conservatism has nothing attractive to counterpose to Marcantonio. Only a genuine, honest, patient revolutionary party able to surmount the barriers of language and tradition can break this political demagogue.

In the meantime, Vito is king of East Harlem – flanked by drugstore cowboys and hoodlums, in alliance with Stalinism, buttressed by chauvinistic backwardness. This cynical demagogue rides the wave: the product of a merger between a corrupt local machine and the international corruption of totalitarian Stalinism.

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