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Jack Ranger

Books in Review

The “Why?” Is Missing

(September 1951)

From The New International, Vol. XVII No. 5, September–October 1951, pp. 304–306.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson
by George H. Mayer
The University of Minnesota Press, 329 pp. $5.

The author’s theme is one of the most serious and interesting in American political history – the organization and growth of a successful labor party on a state scale, and the career of the brilliant lawyer who came over from the Democratic Party to accept the nomination of the Farmer-Labor Association and to serve as the Farmer-Labor governor of Minnesota from 1930 to 1936.

The son of a railroad worker, Olson was born in Minneapolis in 1891. After graduating from high school he became a migratory worker, and joined what Mayer refers to as the “International Workers of the World,” returning to Minneapolis in 1913. While clerking in a law office he won his law degree at night school, and immediately entered politics. He sought the Democratic nomination for Congress in 1918 and 1920, but remained on good enough terms with the Republicans to receive from them an appointment as assistant attorney general in Hennepin County, and in 1924 wangled the Farmer-Labor gubernatorial nomination. Thus his bent for straddling all parties was shown early.

The book discusses Olson’s successful campaigns in 1930, 1932, and 1934, his struggles with a hostile legislature, his extraordinary handling of the unemployment and farm problems, his rise to national prominence as a left wing of Roosevelt, the 1934 Minneapolis truck strikes with Olson uncomfortably in the middle, and the gradual taking over of the Farmer-Labor movement by the Stalinists through their candidate, Elmer Benson. (The author’s political naiveté makes him miss this perfidious game.)

The account closes with the governor’s death, in 1936, of cancer. His death, concludes the author, “enhanced Olson’s reputation because he died before public apathy and the increasing threat of war undermined the reforming zeal of the 1930’s.” The appraisal is partly true. Had Olson lived, there were ample indications that he would have become more and more enmeshed with Roosevelt’s plans. His final political testament was an appeal from his death bed that “liberals must unite in 1936 to re-elect Franklin Roosevelt and to prevent the election of reactionary Alf Landon.” It was largely Olson’s doing that the Farmer- Labor movement was committed to Roosevelt, in return for Democratic support of the FLP state ticket.

Mayer, a member of the Purdue University faculty of history, economics, and government, is not equipped to handle the complex and vital subject he discusses. His unfamiliarity with labor and socialist movements and ideas prevents him from grasping the significance of the Farmer-Labor movement and understanding the conflict between Olson’s “All-Party” politicians and the trade union base which built and maintained the party – a key to an appreciation of the situation.

When Olson agreed to accept the nomination of the Farmer-Labor Association, he insisted on the right to set up an “Olson All-Party Committee” outside the association, to attract political opportunists from the two old parties who supported Olson in return for the promise of state jobs and other political favors. During his governorship, Olson used the “All-Party Committee” as a weapon to attempt to eliminate the association and convert the movement into a personal political machine.

Mayer completely accepts Olson’s “All-Party” viewpoint. This view, of course, would not vitiate Mayer’s work. It is his failure to recognize and come to grips with the complex problems of the party, and to grasp the vital differences between the Farmer-Labor movement and the old capitalist parties that make his book a piece of popular journalism, and nothing more. Interesting journalism, yes, for with such a subject one could hardly write an unexciting book.

In 1944 the Minnesota Farmer-Labor movement merged with the Democratic Party to end 26 years of activity as an independent party. Olson’s plan to scuttle the movement was finally achieved by a loose coalition of the “All-Party” politicians, the state employees, the Stalinists, and a block of trade union officials (chiefly in St. Paul and Duluth) who had always been hostile to independent labor politics.

It was because the Farmer-Labor Party was a party of organized labor, a political federation of trade unions, largely financed by a per capita tax from the affiliated unions, that it alone survived of the many third party movements that arose from the political upsurge following the First World War. Both the farmers’ Non-Partisan League and the Working People’s Nonpartisan Political League, which merged in 1923 to create the Farmer-Labor Federation (later the association), were permeated by socialist ideas and stemmed from the socialist movement. It was the political climate created by years of socialist education, and the FLP’s firm trade union base, that permitted Olson to play far to the left of Roosevelt on occasion, in a manner that so captivated Mayer and which he so little understood.

It is not practical to discuss the oversights, misinterpretations, and errors in Mayer’s book. At what level is one to discuss political ideas with an author who believes the Trotskyist leaders of Local 574 held the primitive concept that the general strike is “the most effective weapon of class warfare”? Where is one to begin to discuss trade union problems with a writer who can find equally reprehensible the behavior of employers and police who set a murderous trap for union pickets, and the strike leaders who insist on picketing in the face of employer threats and gunfire?

The best account of the 1934 truck strike is that contained in Charles Rumford Walker’s American City, which also discusses some of the fundamental problems besetting the Farmer-Labor movement. For a socialist criticism of the FLP, the reader is referred to the many campaign leaflets published by the Trotskyists in Minnesota from 1934 on, to an article A Party Without a Program, by Walter Beirce, in the March 1939 New International, and to the article entitled The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, by Warren Creel, in the March 1946 Fourth International. This last article, written by the former secretary of the educational bureau of the Farmer-Labor Association, is particularly recommended as correcting the grosser misconceptions of Mayer.

Not that the last word will ever be said on the FLP. In the April 1951 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Samuel Lubell, in an article Who Votes Isolationist and Why, confirmed statistically that one of the factors in the defeat of the FLP in rural Minnesota was the defection of German-Americans who deserted the FLP when its leaders followed Roosevelt down the path to war. According to Lubell, these were the same voters who had earlier left the Democratic Party because of “Wilson’s war ...” Stearns County, Minn., with an overwhelming German-Catholic population, and traditionally Democratic, gave Harding 86 per cent of its vote in 1920; four years later, LaFollette carried the county. In 1940, Roosevelt’s vote in this county dropped 34 percentage points below his 1936 vote.

Lubell shows that in 1918, when the Farmer-Labor label first appeared on the ballot, five of the eight principal German-American counties went for the new party. Between 1936 and 1940 all these counties were to revolt against Roosevelt and the FLP in protest against involvement in a war with Germany. The right-wing “realists” of the Farmer-Labor movement, whom Mayer lauds, lost supporters both in the countryside and the big cities by following Roosevelt’s pro-war policy. Yet so strong was the Farmer-Labor appeal that right up to the end, in 1944, the party was still polling 38 per cent of the state vote. You could read The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson ten times over and still lack an explanation for this political phenomenon.

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