James P. Cannon on 1948 Wallace Campaign
‘A Diversion & An Obstacle’
In 1948, Henry A. Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president from 1941 to 1945, ran for president on the Progressive Party slate. Wallace’s campaign posed many of the same political issues for leftists as Ralph Nader’s recent presidential bid. In 1948, some members of the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party/U.S. (SWP) argued for backing the Wallace campaign, but the majority, led by James P. Cannon, firmly rejected this. The following text is excerpted from Cannon’s remarks on the question at the SWP National Committee’s February 1948 plenum:
The Wallace party must be opposed and denounced by every class criterion. In the first place it is programmatically completely bourgeois, as all the comrades have recognized. Its differences with the Republican and Democratic parties are purely tactical. There is not a trace of a principled difference anywhere. And by principled difference I mean a class difference.
A reasonable argument could be made for the support of Wallace’s movement in any circle of American capitalism. The fundamental issue that he is raising is the question of policy towards the Soviet Union. Wallace’s policy can be just as much a preparation for war as the Truman-Marshall program. Just as much. It is a matter of opinion as to which is the most effective way of preparing war against the Soviet Union—whether by an outward effort to reach agreement by concessions in order to prepare better and put the onus of responsibility on the Soviet Union before the fight starts, or by the rough and tumble “get tough” policy of Truman and Marshall. At any rate it is a tactical difference within the camp of the bourgeoisie.
It would be very, very bad and demoralizing if we would allow for a moment the antiwar demagogy of Wallace to be taken by any member of our party as something preferable to the blatant aggressiveness of Truman and Marshall. That would be nothing less than the preparation of the minds of party members for “lesser evil” politics—based on the theory that one kind of capitalist tactics in the expansion of American imperialism is preferable to another, and that the workers should intervene to support one against the other.
If I read the documents correctly, the argument is made by the Chicago comrades that the capitalists do not support Wallace and therefore it is not a capitalist party. I think it is quite correct that all, or nearly all, of the monopoly capitalists at the present moment oppose Wallace. That is not decisive at all as to the class character of the party. The class character of the party is not determined by the class that supports the party at the moment but rather by the class that the party supports. In other words, by its program. That is the decisive line.
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The class character of the party is determined first by its program; secondly by its actual policy in practice; and thirdly by its composition and control….
The control of the Wallace movement rests in the hands of Wallace and those he supports. He determines the candidates and he determines the program. To talk about getting into the movement to change its program and get another candidate—that’s absurd! The program and the candidate are presented to you in a finished package: Wallace for President, and Wallace’s program. He made a speech in Cincinnati where he took up the challenge. He said: “Yes, I accept the support of the Communists, but when they come into our movement they don’t come in to support their program—they support our program.” He was quite right.
Of course you have only to look around to see that the bulk of Wallace’s organized support at the moment is Stalinist—the Stalinist party, Stalinist-dominated unions, Stalinist front organizations, etc. But these Stalinist unions in the Wallace movement function as supporting organizations and not as controlling powers. They roughly play the same role toward Wallace’s wrapped-up, pre-determined program as the PAC and the Political Committee of the AFL will play in the Truman movement….They represent far more workers than the Stalinists in the Wallace camp, but that still doesn’t make the Democratic Party a labor party.
The same is true about the Wallace movement. Get into the Wallace movement and change its program and candidate? Even from a practical point of view it seems to be completely utopian. The whole movement is organized on the basis of the candidacy of Wallace and his program. To join the formation and holler for a different program, a different man—this seems to contradict the whole premise of the movement. They would say to you: “If you’re not a Wallace man, why do you join the Wallace movement?” It would be a very difficult question to answer.
The Wallace movement has another ugly side to it. It appears as a one-man Messiah movement. He is the head of a “Gideon’s Army” throwing the bible at his adversaries. That, it seems to me, is the worst kind of substitute for independent political action by the workers’ own organizations. Wallace’s Messiah movement is a diversion and an obstacle in the way of a labor party. Support for it cannot be considered for a moment. On the contrary, it must be exposed and fought.
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America’s Two-Party System
The traditional two-party system in the United States has been very well suited for normal times. The ruling capitalists couldn’t ask for anything better than this system which absorbs shocks and grievances by shifting people from one bourgeois party to another. But that system can blow up in time of crisis. The aggravation of the crisis which we all see ahead can shake up the whole American political situation, so that the old two-party system will no longer suffice to serve the needs of the American bourgeoisie.
The Democratic Party is a badly shaken organism already. The whole structure can fly apart in times of crisis. It is quite evident now that the AFL-CIO scheme to deliver the labor vote once more to the Democratic Party is meeting strong resistance, even if this resistance is more passive than active. That seems to be one of the undisputable factors of the present political situation. The AFL and CIO chiefs may raise five, ten or even fifteen million dollars for the election campaign. But there is no confidence among them that they can get out the labor vote for Truman as they did for Roosevelt.
The less it becomes possible to mobilize the workers’ votes for one or the other of these two old bourgeois parties, the more impelling and powerful will become the urge of the workers to found a party of their own or to seek a substitute for it. That mood of the workers will create a condition wherein American capitalism will objectively require a pseudo-radical party to divert the workers from a party of their own. This development, in my opinion, will most likely precede the development of a mass fascist party. America will most likely see a new radical bourgeois reform party before the development of American fascism on a mass scale.
That is what really happened in the Thirties, in a peculiarly distorted form. Roosevelt revamped the Democratic Party to serve the role of a pseudo-radical, “almost” workers party. By that he choked off entirely, for the period, the development toward an independent labor party. The Roosevelt “New Deal” became a sort of American substitute for the social program of the old, social democracy. Is a repetition of that performance likely within the framework of the Democratic Party? I doubt that very much. I think there can be only one Roosevelt episode. The whole trend since his death has been in the other direction.
Next time, the role played by Roosevelt—which was a role of salvation for American capitalism—will most likely require a new party. In the essence of the matter that is what Wallace’s party is. Wallace is the, as yet, unacknowledged, candidate for the role of diverting the workers’ movement for independent political action into the channel of bourgeois politics dressed up with radical demagogy which costs nothing. That is what we have to say, and that’s what we have to fight—vigorously and openly, and with no qualifications at all. We have to be 100% anti-Wallaceites. We have to stir up the workers against this imposter, and explain to them that they will never get a party of their own by accepting substitutes.
The slogan: “Build An Independent Labor Party!” is a slogan for the class mobilization of the workers. In some incomprehensible way this seems to have been transformed in the minds of some comrades as a mere demand to break the two-party system of the capitalists. This is not the same thing at all. It means merely a bourgeois party shake-up and not a class alignment.
Now, a break-up of the two party parliamentary system in America is undoubtedly a good thing. It destroys the fetish of the trade union bureaucracy to the effect that it is impossible to operate on the political field outside the traditional pattern. Splits in the two old bourgeois parties are bound to shake up the labor bureaucracy, loosen things up and create a more favorable situation for agitation for the formation of a labor party. But this break-up of the two-party system and splits in the bourgeois parties come about under the pressure of social crisis. These are not our tasks. Bourgeois parties are not the arena for our operation. Our specific task is the class mobilization of the workers against not only the two old parties, but any other capitalist parties which might appear.
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The opposing comrades admit that we would have to pay a price to work inside the Wallace party. The admission price is just simply this: Get in there and rustle votes for Wallace for president. If you won’t pay that price you cannot get in. You have no grounds even to haggle, because it is a Wallace for President movement. That is a price we cannot pay, because it is a price of principle. It is against our principles to solicit votes for bourgeois candidates under any circumstances. It vitiates the whole concept of independent working class political action.
It is wrong to assume that the Wallace party has a great future—that it is certain or nearly certain to become a future labor party. And it is doubly wrong to say, “This is the last chance to get in,” or something approximately of that sort. A mass labor party in the United States, by its very nature, couldn’t be a closed corporation….
Influence in mass parties is not determined by how long you have been there, but how much force you have. If we are in the unions and have forces there, we will be a power in any labor party formation that arises, the moment we join it, roughly in proportion to the strength of our forces in the unions and the general propagandistic power of our press.
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LaFolette’s 1924 Campaign
We had an experience in 1924 in this country of a third party headed by Senator LaFollette, which was quite different from the Wallace movement in this respect—that it had a much broader base of support in the labor movement. Instead of merely one small sector of the trade union movement supporting it, as is the case with the Wallace party, LaFollette’s party was supported officially by the AFL and by the Railroad Brotherhoods, and even by the Socialist Party, which gave up its traditional independence. The Communist Party ran its own candidates and for the first time put itself on the national political map. The Socialist Party traded its independence for the privilege of going along with this bourgeois movement supported by the workers. They broke for the first time their traditional principle of no combinations with bourgeois parties and no support of bourgeois parties. That was an important stage in the degeneration of the American Socialist Party. They gave a finger to the LaFollette movement; eventually the bulk of the Social Democrats gave their whole hand to Roosevelt.