Workers Vanguard No. 918
1 August 2008
From the Archives of Spartacist
On Bourgeois Third Parties and the 1948 Henry Wallace Campaign
The following article, originally titled “Henry Wallace and Gideon’s Army,” is reprinted from Spartacist No. 7 (September-October 1966). The article is about Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party presidential campaign. In the current election year, the “third party” capitalist Greens have nominated former Georgia Democratic Party Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney as their presidential candidate. The parallels between Wallace and McKinney are striking: the candidates’ rousing talk of “peace,” “justice” and a better deal for the little people is meant to corral dissatisfaction with the two main bourgeois parties into yet another capitalist electoral vehicle. Our forebears in the then-revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1948 gave no political support to Wallace. Today, in contrast to reformist groups like Workers World Party, which has endorsed McKinney, we give no political support to the Green/McKinney “Power to the People” campaign. It represents no break with bourgeois politics.
Nor, as Marxists, would we run for executive office—such as mayor, governor or president—ourselves, although Marxists have and can run for parliamentary office as a tactic to propagate our revolutionary program and as part of the struggle to imbue the working class with the understanding that the capitalist order, including its parliamentary facade, must be overthrown through socialist revolution. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels taught long ago, the capitalist government is the executive committee that manages the common affairs of the capitalist class as a whole. In the U.S., the president is the chief executive responsible for the most massive military power in history and for the domestic machinery of repression that maintains social oppression and exploitation. To run for executive office means to aspire to be the next Commander-in-Chief who decides who gets tortured, who gets bombed, who gets invaded (see Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 60, Autumn 2007).
As we pointed out in Spartacist No. 7’s front-page article, “1966 Elections,” to which the Wallace piece was a companion, “In sum, independent campaigns must not only break with the Democratic Party, but must break with the system of bourgeois rule, and aim toward arousing the working class from its present passive allegiance to that system.” The 1966 midterm elections, two years after Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory against Barry (“In your guts, you know he’s nuts”) Goldwater, saw growing opposition to the Vietnam War and recognition that the Democratic Party was, as we wrote, “the favored tool of those forces which are committed to maintaining American capitalist hegemony throughout the world.” In sorting out the various forces running “independent” candidacies, we relied on the working-class Marxist analysis developed in part by James P. Cannon, the founding leader of American Trotskyism, and the SWP.
* * *
In late 1947, Henry A. Wallace announced his intention to run for the presidency of the U.S. as an anti-war, pro-labor candidate. Wallace had been secretary of agriculture, vice president and secretary of commerce, all under Franklin D. Roosevelt, capitalism’s phony champion of the working man. But for the 1948 campaign Wallace ran at the head of the new Progressive Party, a third party challenge to the two established capitalist “front groups.”
During 1946 and early 1947, old-line New Dealers and some Democratic politicians; CIO President Philip Murray, left-dominated unions in the CIO and organizations based on the CIO; and the Communist Party [CP] had all shown an interest in such a third party. However by December 1947, the first two groupings, partially under the pressures of a growing red scare, had almost all retreated to the Democratic Party. Only the CP and groupings closely allied to it gave any substantial support after the end of 1947. The nature of that support can be seen by the continuing withdrawals throughout the campaign by Stalinist-led unions confronted by CIO pressure, and by the composition of the Progressive Citizens of America, a largely petty-bourgeois CP front group, a good section of which later formed the Americans for Democratic Action. Wallace, with his announcement, initiated not a wide-based movement but a petty-bourgeois “Gideon’s Army,” captained by Stalinists.
The Messiah Movement
The nature of the third party campaign waged by Wallace is accurately indicated in that term. Wallace himself relished the designation and seemed eager to portray himself as a latter-day Gideon. His appearances were accompanied by gospel singers, trumpets and a revivalist camp atmosphere. He campaigned on the basis of peace among nations, brotherhood among men and justice for all. Rather than use the first campaign of a new nation-wide party as a means for raising the consciousness of the working class, Wallace accepted the role of a messiah, come to save the American people.
Just before the election, Wallace proclaimed that the Progressive Party could count many victories: a third party had been put on the ballot in 45 states; moreover, his campaign had slowed the “cold war,” given pause to the assault on civil rights and eliminated the possibility of a witch hunt.
The rejoinders to Wallace’s claims are today obvious, but they need to be made because the type of victories which Wallace claimed are the same type that many peace and independent candidates seek today. Where is that third party today? What use, other than electoral, was made of the more than a million voters who supported Wallace? If the “cold war” has slowed, it has slowed only to be replaced by a series of U.S. maneuvered hot wars and CIA-run counter revolutions, most aided by the treacherous role of Stalinist parties. As for the last two claims, one need point only to the continuing police assaults on Harlem, Watts, Chicago, Cleveland and East New York and to the McCarthy period, followed by the HUAC period, followed by the Epton “trial.” [Epton, a leftist activist who at that time was in the Progressive Labor Party, was the first person in New York State since the 1919 “red scare” to be convicted of “criminal anarchy” for his courageous efforts to provide leadership and organization to the besieged black masses during the 1964 Harlem police riot. See “In Memory of Bill Epton,” WV No. 781, 17 May 2002.]
Role of the Guardian
The totally capitalist nature of Wallace’s third party can be seen by reading the early issues of the National Guardian and by comparing the specific items of Wallace’s platform to those in any Democratic Party platform.
The National Guardian began publication in October 1948, primarily as the propaganda organ for the Wallace campaign. Its very first issue (18 October 1948) proclaimed:
“This editorial point of view will be a continuation and development of the progressive tradition set in our time by Franklin D. Roosevelt
“We conceive the progressive tradition to be represented today by Henry A. Wallace
“We believe, with FDR and Henry Wallace, in expanding freedoms and living standards for all peoples as the essential foundation of a world at peace.
“We believe, with FDR and Henry Wallace, that peace can be secured only by seeking areas of agreement among nations, rather than seeking areas of disagreement.”
The high-blown rhetoric cannot conceal three basic fallacies in those few sentences: that FDR, capitalism’s front man par excellence, was in reality the advocate for the working man; that capitalism, which can do nothing to stem famine in India or prevent an approaching famine in Latin America, is able to improve the living standards of the whole world’s population; and that there is no significant difference between the capitalist U.S. and socialist Russia.
A campaign based on such fallacies can do nothing but dull the consciousness of the working class. Why should the labor movement back a minor party candidate who pleads, “Capitalism would be just fine if slightly reformed, so vote for me”? The Democratic Party asserts the same line and its candidates can be immediately elected. Such a campaign can have no outcome other than the strengthening of the Democratic Party’s hold over the working class.
When just that did happen in the ’48 election, the CP and others backing Wallace took credit for such a strengthening of the party which the bourgeoisie have increasingly realized is their protector. The Guardian exulted in its post-election issue (8 November 1948):
“The people of a whole world can look toward America today with renewed confidence. The American people have reaffirmed their progressive tradition. They have repelled the bold maneuvering of monopoly and reaction to take over America through Thomas E. Dewey and the Republican Party. They have handed Harry S. Truman an unmistakable mandate to return to the principles of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“The mandate would not have been possible if the Progressive Party had not introduced the Roosevelt program into the 1948 campaign.”
The laughable absurdity of such a statement is apparent as soon as one analyzes the class nature of the Roosevelt program which Wallace introduced. Its demands have already been fulfilled or have been repeated as truisms in the Great Society of another messiah.
Wallace’s program broke down into two general areas, isolated from each other: the achievement of international peace and the progressive reform of U.S. capitalism at home. According to Wallace, the U.S. could achieve worldwide peace by establishing faith in the UN, by negotiating with Soviet Russia, by recognizing new small countries such as Israel and by abolishing military conscription at home.
The domestic reforms required slightly more complex solutions. On the social side, Wallace advocated abolition of Jim Crow laws and the establishment of legal guarantees for civil rights; federal aid to housing, health and education; and governmental promotion of science and culture. On the economic front, he called for a council of economic planning to assure high production, full employment and a rising standard of living; public ownership of key areas of the economy in TVA type developments; repeal of the Taft-Hartley law and a one dollar an hour minimum wage; anti-trust action against monopolies; and rollback of prices covered out of exorbitant profits.
A Bourgeois Program
Capitalism has been able to fulfill most of these demands or hold out the promise of their fulfillment without seriously damaging its own position. Thus the program posed no questions which capitalism itself could not appear to solve. It did not serve to link up the economic pressures at home with the already mounting imperialism of the “cold war.” Thus Wallace’s general evaluations of Progressive Party successes were all proved incorrect because his platform, accepted gladly by Truman, dealt with specific ills in a capitalist society and not with the capitalist mode of production which produces those ills.
There was no ideological content to the Wallace campaign—only the slogans of a messiah-reformer—and the one million votes formed no base for the development of a third party opposed to capitalist control.
Labor Control Needed
James Cannon in a 1948 internal SWP discussion on the Wallace candidacy offered several criteria which can be used as measures today of these new third parties. He stated that Wallace’s policies showed only tactical differences in the camp of the bourgeoisie and that to support Wallace would mean an entrance into “lesser-evil” politics. He differentiated between the pseudo-radical party of a petty-bourgeois reformist like Wallace and the revolutionary labor party, which would proceed from the aim to assist the development of independent political action by workers and turn that action towards its revolutionary culmination. Finally he insisted that the class character of a party is determined not primarily by the class which supports it but by the class it supports, in its program, daily policy and practice.
The SWP Political Committee resolution on the Wallace candidacy developed on the basis of these criteria its minimum requirement for critical support to a third party: that the party be based on a significant section of labor and be subject to its control and pressure.
The incipient third parties could easily use these criteria in order to distinguish the class nature of their own demands, and therefore the possibility of those demands leading to a revolutionary culmination. More importantly, parties claiming to be Marxist need to establish such criteria as the basis for their own support to third party movements. (The SWP might well take note of its own past history.)