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The first modern Farmer-Labor Party emerged in Minnesota in 1918. Economic dislocation caused by American entry into the war put agricultural prices and workers’ wages into imbalance with rapidly escalating retail prices during the war years, and farmers and workers sought to make common cause in the political sphere to redress their grievances.
A national Farmer-Labor Party emerged from the national Labor Party founded in Chicago in 1919.
The official organ of the Farmer-Labor Party was a newspaper published in Chicago called The New Majority. Editor of this paper was Robert Buck.
One important gathering that was a precursor to the establishment of a national Farmer-Labor Party was the Cooperative Congress, held in Chicago on Feb. 12, 1920. The gathering included participants from the cooperative movement, farmers organizations, trade unions, and the Plumb Plan League. The congress elected a 12 person All-American Farmer-Labor Cooperative Commission. The event was closely reported in the pages of The Liberator by Robert Minor.
In 1920 the Farmer-Labor Party of the United States ran Parley Parker Christensen for President of the United States. Christensen finished particularly strongly in Washington, netting over 77,000 votes in that state alone. In total, Christensen received over 265,000 votes from voters of the 19 states in which the Farmer-Labor Party was on the ballot.
[fn. Solon DeLeon and Nathan Fine (eds.), The American Labor Year Book, 1929. (NY: Rand School of Social Science, 1929), pg. 144.]
The demise of the Federated Farmer-Labor Party did not mean an end to the Farmer-Labor Party movement, however. The regular Farmer-Labor Party continued to exist at the state level, with state and local organizations in Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, Illinois, Kentucky, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Missouri, Washington, the Dakotas, and elsewhere.
This history is documented below.
“A Yankee Convention,” by Robert Minor. [April 1920] In this article from the pages of The Liberator, Communist Party leader Robert Minor expresses excitement over the growth of the cooperative movement in America, not so much for that trend’s ability to lead to the long-run liberation of the working class, but for its ability to bring together farmers and the urban working class in a common cause. Minor here reports on the Cooperative Congress, a national convention bringing together cooperative operators, farmers’ groups, labor unions, and the Plumb Plan League. Although the gathering formally banned the discussion of politics from its proceedings, Minor emphasizes the potential political importance of the cooperative system, particularly as a provisioner of striking workers. Includes several drawings by Minor of key participants of the gathering.
“Radicalism in Amerca,” by Morris Hillquit. [October 15, 1920] This article by Socialist Party NEC member Morris Hillquit in the party’s official organ reviews the two new political organizations to emerge in post-war America—the Labor Party (which transformed itself to the Farmer-Labor Party) and the Communist Party. Hillquit states that the Labor Party began from a principled position, seeking fundamental change of capitalist society, but was quick to sacrifice principle for expedience on the campaign trail, destroying its working-class nature through a merger with the “nebulous aggregation of middle-class liberals known as the ’Committee of 48.’” To this amalgam was added the “purely imaginary forces of the farming community,” resulting in an eclectic mish-mash slated for quick political extinction. As for the Communist Party, Hillquit stated that while it was “desirable” to have “extreme” groups within the Socialist Party as a counterbalance to “any existing tendencies to opportunism,” in the current case the Left Wing’s position was not a “legitimate reaction” since the SPA had taken “the most advanced international socialist position” during and after the war. Instead, it was a “quixotic” attempt to duplicate the Bolshevik Revolution in the United States —and effort which had shattered by “endless internecine strife and successive splits” as soon as the negative program of opposition to the SPA leadership was replaced by the positive task of organization building. As a result, neither of the new political groups had made “any essential contribution” to American radicalism. “The Socialist Party still holds the leadership in radical politics in the United States,” Hillquit notes.
“Theses on the United Front of Labor,” a confidential document adopted by the Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party of America at its session of May 29, 1922. A fascinating glimpse from the Comintern Archives at the thinking of the governing CEC of the Communist Party with respect to its United Front strategy. The majority of the American proletariat was not conscious of its distinct class interests, the document stated, and could gain awareness—and usefulness to the revolutionary movement —only through its daily struggle over wages, working conditions, etc. These struggles would expose reformist economic and political leaderships as enemies of the working class. While a broad united front might be constructed in the labor field through the amalgamation process, in the political sphere established parties claiming to represent the working class must be eliminated from positions of leadership. Practice would prove the superiority of the Workers Party’s tactics, slogans, aims, and leadership and a role of political leadership would consequently follow. The Communists must become a factor in any Labor Party to be formed in America. “We can achieve this end only if we anticipate the formation of such a party and now adopt a policy through which we will become established as a force in the political struggle of the workers...” Any party emerging from the Conference for Progressive Political Action would be retrograde due to its eclectic class compositon, however. This organization would dissipate working class power in “election campaigns fought on the basis of petty ameliorative reforms and of schemes for minor changes in the form of capitalist government.” Only a federative United Front Labor Party allowing the Workers Party’s continued existence “as a distinct organization with a disciplined, educated membership acting upon a program to give leadership to the struggles of the workers,” complete with “its full independence, its right of criticism, and its freedom of action” would be acceptable, according to these theses. Primary authorship of this document has been attributed to Max Bedacht.
“For a Labor Party: Recent Revoltionary Changes in American Politics: A Statement by the Workers Party of America, Oct. 15, 1922,” by John Pepper. Full text of a rather long pamphlet published in this first edition by the Workers Party of America without authorship noted—two later editions attributed to the pen of John Pepper. The pamphlet argues that while most previous efforts have met with failure, the success of the Republican Party—originally a Third Party—in establishing itself proved that the Third Party tactic was viable. America as a nation was in the process of becoming ever more centralized and bureaucratized, tendencies favorable to the reshuffling of the political deck. A mass Labor Party was the answer—its long-term survival inexorably linked to actual union participation in the organization. The non-partisan “reward friends and punish enemies” orientation of Gompers’ AF of L was roundly criticized. Regardless of this line of the national trade union bureaucracy, State Federations of Labor around the country were standing up for a Labor Party and a national organization along those lines was in the offing.
“The Workers Party and the Labor Party,” by C.E. Ruthenberg. [Nov. 1922] Executive Secretary of the Workers Party of America C.E. Ruthenberg attempts to explain the relationship between the WPA and a forthcoming labor party—an institution which Ruthenberg was being inevitably brought into existence by the development of economic forces. This new party would be extremely positive, he argues, noting that if such a party was established and had “the support of millions of organized workers would be the greatest stride forward in the history of the American working class.” It was the task of the Communists to “stay with the masses in their struggles,” Ruthenberg indicates, and thus to participate fully in the labor party that was coming to be.There would be no liquidation of the Workers Party should any such labor party come about, however, for the educational and agitational role of the party would remain, akin to the role of the Trade Union Educational League in the unions—leading the working class and helping to transform the new party into a Communist party. Ruthenberg offers two slogans to summarize the task: “For a Labor Party!” and “For a stronger, more powerful, better disciplined Workers Party!”
“Monster Political Convention of the Workers of America, Chicago, July 3, 1923.” Every Local Union, Central Body, Farm Organization, State, National, and International Body and Political Group Invited. A Chance at Last for Bringing About United Action of the Workers of Hand and Brain on the Political Field. [Circa May 1923] Convention call of the Farmer-Labor Party of the United States (J.G. Brown, Secretary) to a July 3, 1923 gathering in Chicago called for the purpose of “devising means for knitting together the many organizations in this country in such a manner as will enable the workers to really function politically.” While established national organizations were already invited, “the National Committee felt the rank and file should also be represented, and it was therefore voted to send credentials to all local and central labor and farm bodies in the United States and urge that delegates be sent to this most important convention.” Local organizations had simply to elect a delegate, have the President and Secretary sign and stamp the form, and return a duplicate slip by mail to the Farmer-Labor Party of the United States in Chicago.
“For a Labor Party: Addenda to the Second Edition, May 15, 1923,” by John Pepper. There were three editions of the pamphlet For a Labor Party produced over the course of 1922-23, the second and third of which added additional commentary reflecting the developing situation. This document collects the vast majority of changed material from the original October 15, 1922, document (available as a separate file). Pepper excoriates the action of the Socialist Party delegates to the December 1922 Cleveland gathering of the Conference for Progressive Political Action, blaming them for the failure of the gathering to launch the Labor Party anxiously sought by rank and file trade unionists and poor farmers. Instead, the gathering chose to temporize, barring the Workers Party from participation, passing a virtually meaningless and watered down middle class platform, and following the AF of L’s line of non-partisan political action ("rewarding friends and punishing enemies"). The decision of the Socialist Party not to agressively pursue an independent federated Labor Party was an act of premeditated treason against the working class, in Pepper’s view. It was left to the Farmer-Labor Party, which bolted the CPPA following it’s defeat of a proposal to form a Labor Party, to organize this new federative group and a call for a July 3, 1923, Convention to found a new party had been issued. This July 3 Convention would “represent hundreds of thousands, and will be the first real step to an organization of a mass party of the American working class,” Pepper asserts, adding that “the idea of a Labor Party is advancing, and it can no longer be stopped.”
“Statement of Principles of the Federated Farmer-Labor Party: A document of the National Convention establishing the FFLP held at Chicago, July 3-5, 1923.” During the 4th of July holiday in 1923 a conference was held in Chicago, conceived in large measure by the Workers Party of America as the vehicle for its united front efforts, which established the “Federated Farmer-Labor Party.” This document is a statement of political principles of this new organization, which united elements of the old state Farmer-Labor Parties with representatives of sundry workers’, farmers’, and radical political organizations under the de facto direction of the WPA. “Today the government of the United States is a government of, for, and by Wall Street and the Þnancial and industrial system it represents,” the document states. As a result “only one road lies open for the industrial workers and farmers to protect themselves against the exploitation and oppression of the Þnancial and industrial lords who rule this country—to organize a political party representing the interests of the industrial workers and farmers and enter into the political arena to wrest control of the government from the hands of the Þnancial and industrial masters who now rule in this country.”
“Organization Rules of the Federated Farmer-Labor Party: A document of the National Convention establishing the FFLP held at Chicago, July 3-5, 1923.” Constitution of the Federated Farmer-Labor Party approved by the founding convention of the organization. The group was to be directed between conventions by a National Executive Committee based upon proportional representation of affiliated organizations with a designated set-aside of 5 for the old Farmer-Labor Party. This National Executive Committee in turn was to elect a 7 member Executive Council, the National Secretary, and National Chairman of the organization. Dues were to be either on an at large ($1 per year) or per capita affiliation (1 cent per member per month) basis.
“The Farmers in the New Party,” by Hal M. Ware. [August 1923] While a great deal of analysis has been lavished upon the relationship between the Communist Party and the trade union movement during the Federated Farmer-Labor Party interlude of 1923-24, little effort has been spent on examining the relationship of the radical farmer movement to the new organization. This short article, written by the leading CP specialist in agricultural affairs of the first years of the 1920s, casts the relationship in a glowing light. Farmers were burdened by staggering debt, Ware says. He states they were ready to forge a coalition in a new political organization dedicated to addressing their specific needs, rather than continued reliance upon “farmer friends” in the legislative branch, with their “miserable patchwork legislation.”
“The Federated Farmer-Labor Party,” by William Z. Foster. [August 1923] This long day-by-day account of the founding convention of the Federated Farmer-Labor Party (July 3-5, 1923) was written in the immediate afterrmath of the gathering by William Z. Foster. This piece, published in the pages of the monthly magazine of the Trade Union Educational League, is gushingly upbeat and positive in its characterization of the founding convention: “Marked by a tremendous outburst of militancy and enthusiasm, it was a vibrant, thrilling, overwhelming demand by the rank and file of agricultural and industrial labor for the formation of a powerful political party of the toilers. Nobody who attended its sessions will ever forget them.” While Foster would very soon come to regard the WPA’s ideologically blinkered Farmer-Labor Party policy and TUEL’s subsequent loss of contacts and influence in the labor movement as the greatest of debacles—fuel for the factional war inside the Workers Party over the next several years—at this precise moment he was positively ebullient about the organization’s prospects, it’s founding marking a new epoch in American political history: “A mass party, led by militants, embodying the vital idea of a united political organization of workers and farmers, and operating in the midst of the present industrial and agricultural discontent, it is full of dynamic possibilities,” Foster declared. Foster dismissed the “supposed [old] Farmer-Labor Party bolt” as a “lie widely spread,” and he asserted that “the fact is that the most militant elements in the FLP, carrying with them the bulk of the organization, have declared for the new party.”
“To All Labor Unions in Chicago: A Circular Letter Dated Oct. 31, 1923,” by Joseph Manley In the aftermath of the July 3-5, 1923 convention which established the Federated Farmer-Labor Party there was a great deal of acrimony directed at the Workers Party of America for their purported splitting of the farmer-labor movement. This letter to Chicago unions, signed by Joseph Manley (son-in-law of William Z. Foster and National Secretary of the FFLP) answered these charges. The body of this letter is actually a quoted letter stating the position of the Workers Party, signed by the Executive Secretary of that organization, C.E. Ruthenberg. Ruthenberg charges that it was the (old) Farmer-Labor Party of Fitzpatrick and the Chicago Federation which “got cold feet,” violated its previous understanding with the Workers Party, refused any further effort at mediation of differences, and which ultimately was ready to “sacrifice the labor party because Gompers threatened them.” The Workers Party was not at fault, Ruthenberg stated: “If there was any split at this convention it was not a split caused by the Workers Party. If there was a betrayal, it was not a betrayal by the Workers Party. The split and betrayal were the work of Fitzpatrick and the Farmer-Labor group.”
“Letter from C.E. Ruthenberg in Chicago to Morris Hillquit in New York, Nov. 3, 1923.” A cryptic note sent from the Executive Secretary of the Workers Party of the member to the leading light of the arch-rival Socialist Party of America. Ruthenberg notes that he will be in New York on Nov. 8, 1923, and that he seeks a conference with Hillquit to “talk with you” in regard to an invitation sent by the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party to labor political groups for a Nov. 15 conference in St. Paul. This conference was an attempt to “come to an agreement on the question of calling a national convention for the nomination of a presidential candidate and the adoption of a national platform.” Despite the hostility between the two organizations, this document affirms that there was at least informal discussion at the top level about the possibility of joint action with regards to the Farmer-Labor Party movement.
“Letter from C.E. Ruthenberg in Chicago to Osip Piatnitsky in Moscow, Nov. 19, 1923.” A lengthy and illuminating review of the Workers Party of America’s Farmer-Labor Party strategy as it rapidly evolved in the fall of 1923. Ruthenberg relates the decision of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party to call a convention at St. Paul in May of 1924 for the purpose of joint nomination of a candidate for President of the United States and adoption of a joint program—thereby uniting the various state Farmer-Labor organizations, the Federated Farmer-Labor Party, and other labor and political groups into a single organization. Upon learning of this initiative, Ruthenberg states that the CEC immediately sent him to Minnesota, where he met for two days with Minnesota FLP officials working out the details for a November 15 pre-convention conference. Interestingly, Ruthenberg states that it was his initiative over “considerable objection” to extend an invitation to the pre-convention conference to Morris Hillquit of the Socialist Party in an effort to bring the SP and its popular cachet into the new united organization. Ruthenberg also related the decison of the CEC to declare a truce in the ranks of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which was racked by a severe struggle between the union administration of Sidney Hillman and a TUEL-based left opposition. Hillman and the ILGWU were to be key players in the forthcoming Farmer-Labor Party movement, Ruthenberg indicated, while Hillman had the incentive to play the public role of peacemaker, thus consolidating his position in any forthcoming amalgamation of the ILGWU with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, believed by Ruthenberg to be in the offing in the not too distant future. This document demonstrates that volition in WPA action in the Farmer-Labor Party movement came from the party itself—that it did not blindly follow “orders from Moscow” on this matter but rather acted as it saw fit under the general line of the Comintern, providing information of its specific actions after the fact.
“Our Labor Party Policy,” by James P. Cannon and William Z. Foster. [Nov. 1923] The split of the Chicago Federation of Labor from the Federated Farmer-Labor Party Conference of July 3-5, 1923, came as a stunning blow to the Communist Party’s union-oriented activists—of which Bill Foster and Jim Cannon were in the first rank. That the New York-based Central Executive Committee attempted to spin the July Conference as a great triumph rather than an unmitigated debacle came as an insult to this Chicago-centric cohort. It was this matter that triggered a bitter factional war inside the Communist movement that lasted for the rest of the decade. This internal party document by Cannon and Foster is a salvo against the New York leadership of John Pepper and his co-thinkers. To split with the centrist progressive union movement “on the grounds that they are not good revolutionary militants is to reject the idea of alliance of the Communists with other elements in the labor movement, and to repudiate entirely the principle of the united front,” Cannon and Foster charge, adding that the result of the Federated Farmer-Labor Party blunder was sectarian isolation. “We have lost the issue of the united front labor party and are fighting now for our own labor party, the Federated. As a consequence our comrades are largely isolated, and face a united front of all other elements against them.” Convention delegates who voted for the new party and returned to their unions either recanted under the onslaught or were repudiated, Cannon and Foster state, noting “we captured the delegates for three days, but we did not capture their organizations for the FFLP. The claim that the FFLP is a mass party with approximately 600,000 members has absolutely no foundation in fact.”
“Communist Party Pays for Farmer-Labor Party Convention,” by Emil Herman. [Dec. 1923] This unusual and valuable account by Socialist Party leader Emil Herman briefly details the Washington state convention of the Farmer-Labor Party, held in Everett over the weekend of Nov. 24-25, 1923. Herman states that “the Federated Farmer-Labor Party was born under the guidance and domination of the Workers Party” and that the WPA had lent the Farmer-Labor Party $500 to fund the mailing of its call for the Chicago FFLP founding convention, paid the expenses of some delegates to a pre-convention caucus meeting in St. Paul. Herman also stated that Washington FFLP Secretary John C. Kennedy had received dues payments from at-large members so infrequently that he was not even certain of the annual rate. The Washington state convention voted to “cooperate” rather than “affiliate” with the national FFLP, Herman said, adding that the FFLP was “truly an incongruous mass with aims leading in so many different directions that will end in division or dissolution —another object lesson in waste of time, energy, and money for the benefit of a few politicians...”
“The Labor Party Campaign: An Excerpt from the Report of the Central Executive Committee to the Third National Convention of the Workers Party of America,” by C.E. Ruthenberg. [Jan. 1924] The Executive Secretary of the Workers Party of America reviews the organization’s activity for 1923 in the Farmer-Labor Party in this report to the 3rd Convention of the WPA. The failure of the WPA to have its delegates seated at the Dec. 1922 Cleveland Confrence of the Conference for Progressive Political Action combined with the FLP’s withdrawal from the CPPA over its failure to launch a new broad-based Labor Party spurred a move by the WPA to join forces with the existing (old) Farmer-Labor Party as its “united front” vehicle for joint political action, according to this account. With announced decision of the Socialist Party and LaFollette Progressive movement not to participate in the forthcoming July 3, 1923, Conference to establish an new “Federated Farmer-Labor Party,” the old FLP began to lose enthusiasm for the gathering, and a split with John Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor took place at the gathering. Ruthenberg is critical of the activity of the Chicago district of the WPA in the aftermath and attempts to document this group’s mistakes in contrast to the “correct guidance” of the Political Committee of the CEC of the Workers Party.
“St. Paul—June 17th,” by James P. Cannon. [May 1924] An article from the monthly magazine of the Trade Unional Educational League lauding the forthcoming June 17th Convention of the Farmer-Labor Party, scheduled for St. Paul, MN. The St. Paul gathering was held in parallel with a July 4, 1924 convention of the Conference for Progressive Political Action, scheduled for Cleveland, which the Socialist Party was not incidentally attempting to steer in the same direction that the Workers Party was attempting to take the FLP. Cannon’s article attempts to explain this dualism. The CPPA’s “‘sympathy’ for the idea of a labor party is a disguise to hide their actual allegiance to the capitalist parties,” he states, adding that the CPPA labor leaders are unable to form a working class party “because they do not have a working class point of view. They do not live like the workers and they do not think like the workers.” Only the St. Paul convention offered a forum for the participation of the militant working class rank and file, Cannon asserts.
“LaFollette and the Communists: The Statement of Robert LaFollette on Communist Participation in the Progressive Movement, May 26, 1924.”An open letter from the time of Sen. LaFollette’s independent campaign for President of the United States decrying Communist participation in the Farmer-Labor-Progressive movement. LaFollette, whose campaign was supported by the Socialist Party to the extent they did not run their own candidate in 1924, here calls the Communists the “mortal enemies of the Progressive movement and democratic ideals” and declares that “all Progressives should refuse to participate in any movement which makes common cause with any Communist organization”—meaning the forthcoming June 17, 1924, Farmer-Labor Party Convention to be held in St. Paul, MN.
“Workers and Farmers on the Mark,” by C.E. Ruthenberg. [July 1924] An account of the June 17-19, 1924, Convention of the Farmer-Labor Party, held in St. Paul, MN, by the head of the Workers Party of America. The convention, dominated by the WPA, was attended by over 500 delegates, who drew up a program and nominated candidates for President and Vice President of the United States (Duncan McDonald of Illinois and William Bouck of Washington, respectively). The body also elected a National Committee, which in turn elected a National Executive Committee, which included Alex Howat of Kansas as Chairman and Clarence Hathaway of Minnesota as Secretary.