The Lure of the Labor Party
May 1, 2022
The question of whether to work within the Democratic Party or to remain completely outside of it has marked a critical dividing line within the Left for more than a century. Yet there have also been tendencies that sought to straddle this issue, working on the edge of the two party system. Often, those holding this perspective have sought to initiate the formation of a broad left-wing party with ties to the more progressive elements in the union leadership. It is this labor party perspective that is the focus of this article.
The Socialist Party
The Socialist Party of America (SP) remains the most successful effort to establish an independent political party at the national level in U. S. history. A mass party with more than 100,000 members at its zenith in 1912, the SP included a wide range of factions and perspectives. Still, a fundamental point of unity was the need to break with the two party system. The entire range of tendencies within the Party agreed that the working class needed to form its own party, one that was totally independent of both corporate parties.
From its origins in 1901, the Socialist Party grew rapidly, establishing a solid base of support within the working class in localities around the country, as well as within certain unions. Still, the Party remained on the margins at the national and state levels. In spite of this record of success, influential members of its social democratic wing began to view the British Labour Party as a model. The Labour Party had been formed as an organizational venue in which the reformist socialists of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) could cooperate with mainstream union officials on the basis of a program that was explicitly not socialist. Within a few years after its formation in 1900, the Labour Party had become a significant factor in Parliament, acting as a pressure group on the Liberal Party government. Furthermore, a secret agreement between the leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Party avoided a split in the left of center vote in key constituencies.[i]
The success of the British Labour Party dazzled many of the leaders of the Socialist Party of America. When their tentative effort to initiate the formation of a labor party became widely known, the project was dropped and those behind the move publicly declared that they remained committed to furthering the growth of the Socialist Party.[ii]
It is clear that the idea of a labor party had begun to percolate within the U. S. Left in the years prior to World War I. Nevertheless, no one had proposed that socialists should enter the Democratic Party in order to promote a third party. Instead, the Socialist Party moderates saw themselves as the U. S. version of the Independent Labour Party, a ginger group of activists who could play a crucial role in the formation of a broadly based progressive party with ties to organized labor.
The Nonpartisan League
The consensus among socialists on the need to remain outside of the two party system was shattered by the formation of the Nonpartisan League (NPL) in the spring of 1915. Initially organized in North Dakota, it rapidly became a major force in that state’s politics. Lynn Frazier was elected governor in 1916 with the League’s support and, in 1918, its candidates won a majority of seats in both houses of the state legislature. The North Dakota government then implemented key points in the NPL’s platform including a state owned grain mill and a state owned bank to provide low interest loans to farmers. Both of these measures were designed to aid small farmers in countering the power of large corporations.[iii]
The League grew to become a mass social movement with frequent rallies in isolated rural communities, a newspaper and a set of speakers that toured the rural communities of the northern plains states. Still, its cutting edge was its distinctive strategy within the electoral arena. In general, the League focused its efforts at the state level, although it also endorsed candidates for Congress. Its members in a specific district would endorse a single candidate pledged to the implementation of the organization’s program. The League’s candidate would then stand in the primary election of the mainstream party that had garnered the majority of the vote in that district. Since the NPL was an organization of small farmers residing in rural areas, most of its candidates were elected on the Republican Party ticket.[iv]
Thus, the League’s electoral strategy remained firmly within the confines of the two party system. Nevertheless, it had no loyalty to either of the mainstream parties. Instead, it sought to mobilize the progressive vote within both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The NPL’s organizational structure was hierarchical and autocratic. Arthur Townley had the final say on all significant policy decisions, with the sole exception being the selection of candidates for public office. Townley had briefly been a member of the Socialist Party, but his own viewpoint was that of a progressive reformer.
Townley was hardly an ideologue, but he was an excellent organizer. He soon decided to expand beyond the initial base in North Dakota in order to make the League a significant force throughout the entire region. Indeed, at its peak the Nonpartisan League enrolled 245,000 members in thirteen states.[v]
The organization’s headquarters was soon moved to St. Paul, but Minnesota was a very different state than North Dakota. Powerful corporate interests bitterly fought the League, mobilizing vigilante violence and the state courts to crush it. To counter these attacks, the NPL forged alliances with industrial unions based in the Twin Cities, unions that were often led by Socialist Party members.
The rapid success of the League throughout the northern plains states led its leaders to believe that the organization could become a key component in a broad coalition of progressive forces that could significantly alter U. S. politics at the national level. Townley envisioned this coalition working within the constraints of the two party system and he articulated this position in interviews with the mainstream press.[vi] Still, there were others within the leading circles of the League who had another scenario in mind.
Townley usually recruited organizers from within the Socialist Party, some of whom came to play leading roles in the League.[vii] Most of those recruited from the SP still viewed themselves as socialists. Disdainful of both mainstream parties, they were convinced that the NPL should be joining with other progressives in forming a third party that brought together small farmers and industrial workers. Socialists would constitute a left-wing tendency within this new, broad party, working to transform it into a genuinely socialist party.
The debate on this critical issue usually remained behind closed doors as Townley insisted on being the sole person to articulate the NPL’s policy. Yet occasionally there were public indications of an alternative perspective. In July 1918, Arthur LeSueur was invited to speak to the state conference of the Minnesota Federation of Labor. Le Sueur was an attorney who had been one of the leading members of the North Dakota Socialist Party before joining the League in 1917 as legal counsel.[viii] Le Sueur spoke eloquently urging the delegates to help in the formation of a broad third party. Both the leadership of the state federation and Townley opposed the idea of a third party, but that year an ad hoc formation nominated independent candidates for governor and attorney general under the label of the Farmer-Labor Party.[ix]
Le Sueur had presented the views of several key members of the NPL who had previously spent many years as activists within the Socialist Party. They were developing a new twist to the original labor party perspective. Operating as a left-wing within an organization enmeshed within the two party system, socialists would urge that organization to move toward independent politics by participating in the creation of a broadly based progressive party. Once this first step was consolidated, socialists would then work within the third party to persuade it to take another step by adopting a socialist program. Of course, these initial steps were seen as the essential prerequisite to a further movement toward a socialist society.
The Nonpartisan League disintegrated in the post-war period. Townley resigned in May 1922 and the National Nonpartisan League officially dissolved in 1923.[x] Several factors accounted for this rapid decline. The harsh repression experienced by the League’s organizers during the war was one underlying factor. Legal cases drained resources, both in terms of time and funding. These attacks also intensified the underlying split within the NPL’s leadership, dividing those who were content to work within the two party system and those who looked to the formation of an independent party. The demise of the National Nonpartisan League meant the end of an organization that had become a force at the regional level. Still, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (FLP), a third party based in a single state, would emerge from the disintegration of the League.
The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party
In terms of electoral victories, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party was the most successful third party in U. S. history. For more than twenty years, it maintained its position as one of the two major parties in that state. At times, the FLP became the largest party, holding most of the statewide posts. Nevertheless, it always sought to implement a narrowly focused set of liberal reforms.
Minnesota’s politics were unusual. During the era of the First World War, the state was still primarily rural. The Republican Party, led by conservatives, usually prevailed in elections held in these rural districts. Still, a significant minority of Republican voters were progressives. Minnesota also included a growing metropolitan district, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Although the Democratic Party received a majority of the urban vote, many workers were also attracted to the Socialist Party. With the opposition divided and with a solid base of support in the rural areas, the Republican Party ruled as the dominant party at the state level.
The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party first formed as a stable political formation for the 1922 election. By then, Townley could no longer block the formation of a third party. The FLP brought together progressive Republicans who had been members of the Nonpartisan League with liberal Democrats and those in the Socialist Party who were looking for a more immediately pragmatic alternative. This was a broad coalition with significant support throughout the state.
Socialists who had been active in the Nonpartisan League were instrumental in bringing farmers into the new party. Henry Teigan was one of those who helped to form the Farmer-Labor Party. After holding the position of state secretary of the North Dakota Socialist Party from 1913 to 1916, he joined the staff of the National Nonpartisan League and served as its executive secretary from 1916 until its dissolution in 1923. An influential figure in the FLP from its beginning, Teigan edited its newspaper for several years. He was also elected in 1936 to one term in the U. S. House of Representatives.[xi]
From the start, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party eclipsed the Democratic Party to become the main opposition to the conservative politics of the Republican Party leadership. Still, the FLP failed to elect its candidates to statewide offices throughout the 1920s. Although the party elected several of its candidates to the state legislature, it remained a pressure group on the outskirts of power.
The Great Depression of 1929 dramatically changed this balance of power. For the first time, the FLP was able to elect one of its nominees, Floyd Olson, as governor. In 1930, Olson negotiated a secret agreement with the Democratic National Committee representative for Minnesota, Joseph Wolf. Under this agreement, the Democrats agreed to nominate a candidate who was not well known for governor. In return, the FLP would nominate a relative unknown for the U. S. Senate.[xii]
The secret agreement helped Olson to be elected as governor, although it was not fully implemented in the contest for senator. The FLP conference endorsed an unknown candidate for the Senate, but Ernest Lundeen, a well known progressive, ignored the agreement and won the FLP primary. The result was the re-election of the Republican nominee, Senator Thomas Schall. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Farmer-Labor Party had initiated a working relationship with the Democratic Party at its national level, even before the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.
Once elected governor, Olson tightened his control over the FLP. He was re-elected twice and remained in power until his death in August 1936. During much of his tenure, the FLP held a majority in the state house while falling short of a majority in the state senate. Olson proved to be an effective politician who could mobilize popular opinion in support of a program of social reforms. As a result, several of his proposed measures were enacted with the support of liberal Democrats in the state senate. Banks were blocked from foreclosing on farms and a modest program of work relief was also established for the unemployed. Olson’s legislative program complemented the New Deal program of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Indeed, Olson was closely tied to the president. During the 1932 election, Roosevelt made a campaign stop in Minnesota where Olson spoke for him. Olson then endorsed the New Deal’s legislative proposals. In turn, Roosevelt consulted with Olson and made patronage appointments to Democrats sympathetic to the Farmer-Labor Party. In 1936, Roosevelt made sure that the Democrats did not nominate candidates for governor and the U. S. Senate, leaving the field open for the FLP’s candidates to win overwhelming victories.[xiii]
Olson’s choice to succeed him, Elmer Benson, was not a skilfull politician and his relationship with the state legislature became adversarial. Benson succeeded in having a statute enacted that guaranteed tenure for teachers, but his effort to establish a progressive income tax was defeated. In 1938, Benson was defeated for re-election and the FLP’s control of state politics came to an end. As World War II unfolded, the FLP lost its momentum and fused with the Democratic Party in 1944.[xiv]
The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party never moved beyond the limits set by a progressive political perspective. Its left-wing remained a marginal factor in determining the actual policies pursued by the party while holding office. For one brief moment in the spring of 1934, the Left appeared to be in control. For an unknown reason, Olson left the March 1934 FLP conference after giving the keynote speech. In his absence, the delegates approved a preamble to that year’s election program calling for a cooperative commonwealth as a long-run goal. The main platform for the upcoming election included a call for state control of utilities, railroads and banks. After the mainstream press attacked the FLP as reckless radicals, Olson responded by implicitly repudiating the platform and pledging that he stood firmly behind the president and the New Deal. The 1934 platform demands then vanished from public view.[xv]
As an experiment in progressive politics, the Minnesota FLP gained a limited success, but as a model of socialist politics it was a total failure. The FLP always remained a satellite of the national Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration. The Minnesota FLP was never a genuinely independent party and its absorption back into the two party system was a logical endpoint in its evolution.
DSA and the Labor Party Question
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is currently the largest socialist organization in the United States. It functions as one of several organizations that promote a liberal agenda, primarily within the Democratic Party. Still, DSA encompasses a wide range of political tendencies that differ in their approach to electoral politics. The left-wing of DSA refuses to support centrist corporate Democrats such as President Joseph Biden. Furthermore, many of those on the left of DSA reject the idea that the Democratic party can be transformed into a party that truly represents the working class.
Instead, they propose the formation of a broadly based progressive party. Given the close ties of organized labor to the Democratic Party, there is no possibility of a third party with formal links to trade unions. Nevertheless, this is in its essence the labor party perspective. A progressive party would bring together the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party with community activists and shop floor militants who have remained outside of the two party system. It would do so on the basis of a program that is very similar to the one being currently advocated by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Those advancing this argument see this step by step approach as the only way forward given the existing situation in the United States. Working within DSA, left-wing tendencies push for a split with the Democratic Party and the formation of a broadly based third party. Once this party is formed, leftists would urge the new party to adopt a transitional program that would move beyond the limits set by the capitalist system and toward a new society.
The DSA Left is convinced that the essential first step in this lengthy process would be a break with the Democratic Party. The argument assumes that such a break in itself would be sufficient to propel further steps toward a socialist politics. This overlooks the tight interlinking between the acceptance of a program of liberal reforms and an adaptation to mainstream politics. The liberal agenda begins with the belief that the capitalist system needs merely to be tweaked rather than challenged in its fundamental structures. A tactical approach to the two party system follows as a logical consequence, given a belief that capitalism can be molded into a just society. Socialists need to question both the idea of working within the Democratic Party and the argument that capitalism can be reformed and they need to do this simultaneously. There is little reason to expect that a broad left party will move toward a socialist politics. On the contrary, it is far more likely that it will return to the Democratic Party as did the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.
The FLP became an important factor in Minnesota’s politics for more than twenty years. Yet once in office, its program of reforms remained squarely within the constraints set by a progressive perspective. Indeed, one could argue that the North Dakota Nonpartisan League accomplished more when it controlled the state government than did the Farmer-Labor Party when it was the dominant party in Minnesota, even though the NPL remained within the two party system. Furthermore, the FLP never became a genuinely independent party. As it supplanted the Democrats as the liberal opposition in the state, it also became increasingly integrated into national Democratic Party and the New Deal of the Roosevelt administration.
Although the step by step argument of the DSA Left is presented as a new one that arises from the specific circumstances currently confronting the Left, in fact, the perspective is very similar to the one formulated by socialists who held leadership positions within the Nonpartisan League. Still, despite the similarity in political perspective, the objective situation is quite different now than a hundred years ago. Senator Bernie Sanders is locked into the Democratic Party, while the League remained on the edge of the two party system. The NPL led the way to the formation of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, but it is highly unlikely that the current divisions within the Democratic Party will lead to a major organizational split and the formation of a third party.
Instead of viewing the British Labour Party or the Nonpartisan League/Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party as historical models to be emulated, contemporary socialists should look toward Eugene Debs and the left-wing of the Socialist Party, with its close ties to the IWW and radical trade unionists. The labor party perspective leads down a path to nowhere.
[i]Andrew Thorpe, A History of the British Labour Party (London, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997), pp. 14-23.
[ii]Eric Thomas Chester, True Mission: Socialists and the Labor Party Question in the U. S. (London, England: Pluto, 2004), pp. 57-62.
[iii]Robert Morlan, Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915-1922 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955), p. 89.
[iv]Morlan, Political Prairie Fire, p. 50.
[v]Charles Edward Russell, Bare Hands and Stone Walls: Some Recollections of a Side-Line Reformer (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933), p. 344.
[vi]The New York Times, March 18, 1917.
[vii]Michael J. Lansing, Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 29.
[viii]Karen Starr, “Fighting for a Future: Farm Women of the Nonpartisan League,” Minnesota History (Summer 1983), 48: 258.
[ix]Millard L. Gieske, Minnesota Farmer Laborism: the Third Party Alternative (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), pp. 45-48.
[x]Morlan, Political Prairie Fire, pp. 341, 346.
[xi]Gieske, Minnesota Farmer Laborism, p. 11.
[xii]George H. Mayer, The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1951), p. 49.
The next paragraph draws from the same source.
[xiii]John Earl Haynes, Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 14, 18.
[xiv]Haynes, Dubious Alliance, p. 23.
[xv]Mayer, Floyd B. Olson, pp. 170-71, 240.
Eric Chester is Author of The Wobblies in Their Heyday (Levellers Press) and Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent During World War I (Monthly Review Press) and editor of the IWW anthology Yours for Industrial Freedom (Levellers Press).