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New International, August 1948


Notes of the Month

Two Conventions: Challenge to Labor


From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 6, August 1948, p. 163–167.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Perhaps the simplest and least controversial index to the political maturity of the American people is the degree of strictly non-partisan disgust that has been aroused by the spectacle of the two party conventions that were held in July at Philadelphia. We are referring to the shows put on by the Democratic and Republican Parties, the Wallace convention not yet having been held as this is written.

The disgust index does not register very high, to be sure – in spite of television’s help in promoting it. But it may be more than merely optimism if we believe that some progress has been indicated. Naturally, the greater burden of the reaction falls upon the GOP, since on one point at least the Democrats provided a reasonable facsimile of a discussion over ideas. The United States is probably the only country left on the planet where, in the midst of a world that is visibly falling apart at the seams, major parties girding for a conflict over leadership of a great nation could convene such empty political farces in the year 1948.

The clump-clump of World War III can be heard in the wings; but on the stage at Philadelphia the entertainers at Dewey’s headquarters made better copy for the newspapers than the platform oratory. Czechoslovakia falls and Tito rises – but the fashion show put on by one Republican aspirant to “the biggest job in the world” had just a bit more to do with his chances for the presidency than the nomination speech made on his behalf. It was perhaps through a concession to dignity that refrigerators and washing machines were not given away with each vote cast by the delegates, but it would have been equally enlightening if the Republicans had chosen their man by a contest to guess “Mr. Hush.”

The scene of hoopla and smoke-filled candidates can be viewed best through foreign eyes: a French observer, for example, was widely quoted as wondering, with startled innocence, how “a Lincoln or a Roosevelt” had ever emerged from such shindigs. While justified insofar as it reflects astonishment at the puerility of the proceedings, the reference to Lincoln and Roosevelt in particular shows a misunderstanding of what makes the old-party conventions the wellnigh meaningless comedies they are. In 1860 and in 1932, the conventions that nominated Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt met in the midst of political and social upheavals that were shaking society to its depths – the Inevitable Conflict and the Great Depression. Class conflicts were at a high point and class issues had to be fought out. It is times of great conflict that produce “great men” – or if not great men, then at least more or less able and intelligent representatives of capitalism instead of Deweys and Trumans. The heat of the social conflicts, generated by the stirrings of masses in motion, is enabled to penetrate even into the remote regions where the political machines grind on in their parasitic existence.

In 1948 the masses of people – which, in today’s America, means primarily labor – are still politically passive. This July (unlike both 1860 and 1932) there was no challenge to capitalism yet manifest on the social scene. The politicians could afford to concentrate on what is the normal way of life for their species – machine power politics and its accompanying range of maneuvers. Symptomatically, labor’s role at Philadelphia was almost nil. The politicians had little to worry about outside of their ordinary occupational hazards – loss of patronage, etc.; and insofar as this was not so (the threat of the Wallace vote to the Northern city bosses) there was produced the only sign of life, the scrap over civil rights at the Democratic convention.


But the highlight of the Democratic convention was not the walkout staged by the Southern Dixiecrats – if by “highlight” is meant, not necessarily the most dramatic event, but literally that which highlighted the main character of the gathering. This was rather a little-noticed strange interlude provided by an obscure rank-and-file delegate from Florida, Byrd Sims by name.

By the time the rollcall for nominations had started, it will be remembered, the anti-Truman bubble had collapsed; Eisenhower, Douglas and the short-lived Pepper were out of the picture and only Russell of Georgia remained in the running as the Jim Crow (beg pardon, states’-rights) candidate. And Mr. Sims was not satisfied.

Maybe his delegation chairman or friends had tried to soothe him: After all, Byrd, none of us like it but there’s nothing we can do, see, the big boys got it all fixed up, and you can’t buck ’em, so just remember you’re a nobody from Florida and jump on the bandwagon and maybe you’ll get a new post office at home, huh, so be reasonable for heaven’s sake, will you?

But all Mr. Sims knew was that he was an American citizen, wore a delegate’s badge, and wasn’t satisfied.

The program was cut-and-dried; the speeches were uncut and drier; the rollcall trundled up to Florida and Mr. Sims got the floor; he informed the chairman that he, Sims, wanted to make a nomination for the presidency. The strange statement simply did not register on that gentleman. “You have five minutes,”the chairman intoned before it dawned on him that the little man had actually said “nomination for the presidency.” Mr. Sims got all of twenty minutes, because he was an American citizen, wore a delegate’s badge, wasn’t satisfied, and wanted to nominate a president.

To be sure, Mr. Sim’s nomination speech, unrehearsed and unpolished, was an amateur performance, almost painfully embarrassing; he repeated himself over and over, as a man has a right to do in speaking over a cracker barrel to his fellows. Paraphrased and stripped down, it went somewhat as follows:

I’m from the great state of Florida and I am happy to have this opportunity to get up before you, the delegates to this great convention of the Democratic Party and have the privilege to speak my mind. That is possible because we live in a great democracy, where I, just another delegate from the great state of Florida, can nominate my choice for the presidency of the great United States of America just like anyone else. We ought to be thankful we live in such a great democracy, and I want to see how much chance a man like me has to get somewhere without a machine. And so I want to nominate that great American, Paul V. McNutt.

Then the gears, halted for a moment, clashed again and whirled on ... We do not intend to scoff, least of all to belittle Mr. Sims. The scene is pathetic, naive and appealing. Our sympathies are all with Byrd, honest and courageous soul that he is in his own way. He thought he had flesh-and-blood ears to speak to, like those of his neighbors in the club back home, where a man can get off what he has on his chest.

He obviously did not know he was speaking to a machine.

The truth – to be seen clearly enough in a year when both major parties nominate men forced down their throat by the machines in back of them – is that the American party system has as much resemblance to democracy as a robot has to a human being. There are few regimes in the world, outside of the open dictatorships, which are as divorced from the people and from the play of social influence.

Not a hundred Mr. Simses from the grass roots can shout loud enough to have their voices heard at its summits. Politics – the business of fulfilling the democratic rituals – is a big business like everything else of importance in capitalist America; and the little dissatisfied man is a grain of sand in the gears.

American labor, however, is not a little dissatisfied man. It is the mightiest social force in the country, without exception. To it alone belongs a voice that can shake even the tops, and that has shaken them. And the most pathetic spectacle of all is the fact that, still in 1948, this giant stands before the politicians’ conventions like Mr. Sims ...

We will see how long.


There was another act of courage at the Democratic convention, in this case courage born not of political naivete but of conviction and principle.

That was the split-away by the intransigent wing of the Southern white-supremacy shouters, led by the delegation from the slum area of the nation, the state of Mississippi.

The word “courage” in this connection may strike strangely on our readers’ ears: it usually connotes commendation. And there is certainly no doubt that this ante-bellum band of unreconstructed race-haters represented the most reactionary assemblage of troglodytes in both parties, bar none. (The fascist Gerald Smith and the anti-Semitic agitator “Reverend” Perkins flocked to their rump convention like jackals to carrion.)

Nevertheless, we point them out to labor as a model to pattern after, in one decisive respect. They risk the loss of patronage, even excommunication by their fellow Jim Crow Democrats who are sticking with the machine. But they have principles by which to live and they propose to live by them, as unashamed reactionaries.

Look at the difference! Truman has, only yesterday, broken three great strikes with open viciousness scarcely paralleled for decades; Truman has brought back the rule of government strikebreaking by injunction; Truman has kicked labor in the face and given it nothing – yet labor crawls after his presidential chariot. But so soon as the Democratic convention as much as inserts a passage in its manual of campaign promises (called a platform) in favor of anti-racist laws on paper, so soon these principled reactionaries rise up on their hind legs and kick back.

No doubt they are hotheads. After all, they should realize that a platform promise (especially one as delicately worded as this one is) means as much to Truman as it does to the next wardheeler – and doubly so when it was inserted in the platform over the opposition of the Truman forces themselves. No one need tell them there is a vast gulf between the pledge and the performance, especially since Truman (who himself originally made these proposals) has never lifted a finger to effectuate even those parts of his civil-rights program which can be put into practice by executive order without congressional action.

But there is method in their hotheadedness. Their action in splitting, far more than any rebel yells at the convention, represents the most effective way of exerting pressure on Truman to ditch any ACTION on civil rights.

Truman will be in a dilemma during the special session which he has called, presumably to put the GOP on the spot. It may be easy enough for him to go as far as dangling a civil-rights bill before Congress in the full expectation that it will be voted down. This may even be enough to stuff the mouths of the liberal cretins who are even now timidly suggesting that Truman isn’t such a bad guy after all. But the inconvenient fact is that Jim Crow in the armed forces, among other things, can be abolished by executive decree, on the president’s say-so alone.

The Southern splitters are more concerned that this “catastrophe” not come to pass than they are to form a lily-white party. And they have chosen the most effective way to counter the pressure that will be put on Truman from the North – pressure to carry out the promises, to carry them out mangled on a stretcher, it may be, but to carry them out in some way.

Like symmetrical weights on a balance scale, the counter-pressure in favor of civil-rights action likewise does not come from a point within the Democratic Party. It comes at this moment essentially from the existence of the Wallace movement. We, like most of labor, oppose the Wallace-Stalinist party as the cat’s-paw of the Kremlin, but it will do no one any good to blink away this fact.

If Truman is forced to put any teeth into the civil-rights plank, if he is forced merely to make a pretense of doing so, the decisive reason will be the fact of the Wallace threat.

The remnants of the non-Stalinist wing of the New Deal coalition (organized at the Democratic convention under the egis of Americans for Democratic Action) are busily claiming the civil-rights plank as their own victory for liberalism. This is pathetic puff.

Their forces at the convention numbered less than ten per cent of the total, and their people had the assignment of making the speeches – all to the good, of course. But the decisive reason why the plank was even put on paper was the support from the Democratic city machines of Hague, Arvey, et al. – and these noble allies were not at all concerned with either liberalism, racial democracy or “the tradition of FDR” (who, lord knows, was the very first president of the United States to put the official stamp of White House approval on army Jim Crow!). The city bosses were concerned with the threat of Wallace, his threat not to Truman but to the chances of salvaging Democratic victories in local contests in their own bailiwicks.

And so the Democrats are pulled between the forces organized independently, outside the machine, while the labor leaders pule about being “practical” ... and stay within the pale, impotent.

There is still another lesson to be drawn from the civil-rights fight, to cast a sidelight on the uncanny blindness of the CIO-AFL heads in opposing the independent organization of labor’s strength in the form of a labor party.

It is obvious that the liberals’ “victory” has put yet another crimp in Truman’s dim chances for beating Dewey. Just how serious the Southern split will be remains to be seen, but (1) it certainly has not helped, and (2) as we have indicated, in proportion as Truman takes the civil-rights plank off paper, the white-supremacy revolt is bound to grow in size and effect.

Now the liberals do not express chagrin over this by-product of their famous victory-nor can they very well do so at the same time that they publicly chortle over it. Yet, according to their own lights, they should be kicking themselves around.

The big “practical” argument against a break with the Democrats has always been: As long as the Democrats are the lesser evil, we don’t want to ensure the victory of the more reactionary Republicans. But if this makes good sense as an argument against labor’s splitting with the donkey, it makes equally good sense against forcing the split of the right wing. The latter helps a Dewey victory just as effectively.

There is, however, a big difference between the two kinds of splits. If labor takes the initiative in the break and forms its own party, then it has something, something to build, something that will be stronger the following year and is bound to keep on growing in strength. But if the extreme right wing is forced out by liberal half-victories within the party, then the labor strategy falls between two stools. The Democratic “lesser evil” is weakened, to be sure, but labor is left holding on tightly to nothing but a disintegrating shell!

The theory on which the lib-lab coalition in the Democratic Party has been working is patently bankrupt. This has been the aforementioned theory of the lesser evil.

Let us be clear about this lesser-evil business. There is, of course, nothing wrong with choosing the lesser of two evils if these two are really, actually, the only choices before us.

But where (1) the lesser evil inevitably degenerates toward the greater evil, and (2) there is a third choice, waiting to be grasped, which alone points onward and not backward – then it becomes true that the lesser evil is not the road of hard-headed political practicality but only the substitution of shortsightedness for realism.

That is what the 1948 election campaign is making clear. The labor politicos are proving to Truman that they fall easy, they do not have to be wooed even with a chocolate bar. They have nowhere else to go, because – being such terribly practical people – they refuse to open the one door which is unlocked: the formation by labor’s millions of its own party, a labor party, separate from and independent of the old parties, based on the mass trade unions, a party that belongs to it and is run by it.

What, then, is more practical than the proposal for immediate action put forward by the National Committee of the Workers Party, in the course of its statement on the presidential election?

“There is something to be done, and most especially right now.

“Walter Reuther, president of the Auto Workers Union, has come out for the formation of a new party also – only he adds: as soon as the elections are over.

“To be sure, it is no longer possible for labor to participate in this presidential campaign for a candidate of its own. The presidential campaign is already lost for labor, no matter who wins. Nor, probably, is it possible at this late date to form a labor party to participate in the congressional elections.

“But why wait till after the elections to take the FIRST STEPS?

“What we propose is that now – not after the elections – the trade unions call a nation-wide conference to take the first steps toward the creation of labor’s own party.

“NOW – while the lesson is fresh and rankling. “NOW-while it is clear that the old policy is washed up, and before anyone has a chance to forget it.

“NOW – while everyone is going through the quadrennial spurt of interest in political issues and problems, not after the November decision when political interest generally lets down.

“NOW is the proper PRACTICAL time to call a conference of ALL trade unions, CIO, AFL, railroad brotherhoods and independents, to set up the machinery to put labor into the political picture, to dig the foundation.

“There is no better way than this to say to the old parties, in the course of the campaign itself: We mean business! Watch your step! We are no longer tame dogs to be patted on the head every four years! We’re breaking loose on our own!

“You want to use labor’s strength to put pressure on the politicians in the campaign? There is no better way to mobilize such pressure than this. NOW – while the politicians are busy making promises.

“Labor has been taking a beating on the political field. NOW – serve notice that we are going on the offensive.

“This is the most important way in which labor can participate in the 1948 election campaign.”


But even such an important step will not provide anyone for whom class-conscious workers can vote in November. There is no candidate of the labor movement. In this situation, our proposal is:

Cast a protest vote – not a pro-Stalinist protest vote for the Wallacite creature of the CP, but a SOCIALIST protest vote!

There will be three socialist candidates on the ballot in various states, put up by three small socialist groups – Norman Thomas for the Socialist Party, Farrell Dobbs for the Socialist Workers Party, and Edward Teichert for the Socialist Labor Party.

We agree with the particular programs of none of these groups. We do not ask our readers to support any of these parties as such. On the contrary, we have the severest criticism of each, from our own point of view. But we cannot and do not put them on the same footing as our disagreements with Truman, Dewey and Wallace.

The total vote which will be registered for all three socialist candidates combined – comparatively small as it may be, given the weakness of the socialist movement in the United States – will be the register of the socialist protest vote in this election. We do not believe that the bulk of the votes which will be cast for Norman Thomas can be considered as ballots in favor of Thomas’s pink, “respectable,” socialistic liberalism as against the militant Marxist movement. That is not what is at issue. Similarly, the count for Farrell Dobbs will not be a register of those who are voting for his party’s disastrous position of “defending the Soviet Union” as a “workers’ state” against capitalist encirclement. And the same goes for Teichert as the representative of the SLP’s fossilized sectarianism, its opposition to any and all immediate demands, and its substitution of “the unconditional surrender of capitalism” for a struggle inside the mass trade unions against the conservative labor lieutenants of capitalism.

We propose that workers cast the only possible vote which can he counted against Truman, Dewey and Wallace, and for a workers’ world – by voting for one of these socialist candidates.

There is no political preference as among the three, as far as we are concerned. We can find no political reason for putting anyone of them on a more advantageous footing than the other.

If Norman Thomas has adopted the role of “left” critical support of American imperialism, it is equally true that the SWP stands programmatically on the basis of critical support to Russian imperialism. If the SLP preaches “straight socialism” and opposition to both Washington and Moscow, it is also true that its sectarian attitude toward the bona-fide trade unions practically puts it outside the real labor movement.

But on the narrow and exceedingly limited question of how to mark the ballot in November, we are interested in only one thing: Vote for a socialist candidate, against Truman-Dewey-Wallace! Vote Socialist!


Whoever wins, we said, the presidential race is already lost for labor. But that has been true for a very long time – the only difference this year is that even the labor leaders (not to speak of the bulk of militant workers) are aware of this fact now, even those who will hypocritically sprinkle holy water over Truman.

And so the “defeat” which will be lamented by the labor-liberals – if Dewey wins, as seems probable – will be no defeat at all, certainly not in the sense which they will ascribe. On the contrary, it can be an eye-opener and the threshold of a great opportunity.

This may well be the lasting significance of the 1948 election: For the first titne in sixteen years, labor will be out of the unofficial government coalition; there will be a break between labor’s house and the White House; the labor movement will no longer have the illusory feeling that the government power in Washington is friendly.

And this will be almost as true even if the miracle takes place and Truman succeeds himself.

This means that, after November, the problem of political action will be posed all over again before the labor movement – and the old answers can no longer be given. The last decade has pretty nearly devastated the notion that the trade unions can stick to their economic last and ignore politics. And now they will be forced to find new channels in which to exert labor’s potential political power.

In the next two years at the most, labor has a job to do – a revolution in its political thinking! Circumstances and social forces push it inexorably in that direction. It can drag its feet, or else it can go forward enthusiastically, aware of what is happening, grasping time by the forelock.

The road ahead is wide open, and the signpost reads: To labor’s own party – to real independent political action by the massed millions of the working class for the first time in American labor’s history!

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