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New International, August 1948


Notes of the Month

The Truman Upset and Labor Politics


From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 9, November 1948, pp. 259–263.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We might as well jump right into the fascinating subject of the Mystery of November 2, in spite of the fact that (by the time this is in print) everybody and his favorite commentator will already have taken a crack at enlightening the populace on such things as the fundamental flaws of pollstering, etc. If we do, however, it is not for the purpose of explaining away a prediction – we were fortunate enough to have made none – but for a much more limited and much more important reason: in order to look into what lies ahead for labor political action, for the building of a party of labor’s own.

More than that: in order to analyze what the election has shown – the social forces abroad in American life at work on the people as a whole and on the labor movement in particular; the pushes and pulls, the climate of politics, the class forces that are operating to bring about such upsets and bewilderment in the ranks of the professional “practical” politicians.

The latter, the professional practical politicians, thought they had the people figured out the same way as they have always figured out – so many votes on a string to be pulled by adept manipulators, from the wardheelers to Tom Dewey’s supposedly up-to-date general staff. But the people did not “figure out,” and a dozen honored formulas of “practical politics” bit the dust. We shall see what some of these formulas were.

Now a lot of labor leaders (and their followers) have stood in mystic awe of what they respectfully referred to as “practical politics.” Their devotions led to incantations like the following: A labor party? The trouble with you, my friend, is that you don’t understand practical politics in this country, see? Now all experience has shown ...

Well, what “all experience has shown” did not fare so well recently. The ready-packaged formulas of the practical politicians went up in smoke, under the impact of real political forces.

There was the puss-in-the-corner formula of politics, according to which the Ins and the Outs are supposed to swap places rhythmically as the “public” gets “tired” of the old faces. There was the formula that the party which wins Congress on the off year gets the presidency two years later, a formula which now goes into the discard along with “As goes Maine ...”

There is this new formula about the “sympathy vote,” according to which Truman swept the board because people felt he was the underdog. One highly paid columnist even wrote a post-election think-piece in which he proved the power of this mighty sentiment by quoting an anonymous woman who emerged from the voting booth to tell a friend: “I was going to vote for Dewey but, oh dear, I just couldn’t let poor Mr. Truman down!” Far be it from us to deny the existence of the sympathy vote, but we wonder how the formula works when it gets applied to Henry Wallace, who was certainly the most kicked-around candidate in sight ...

Now we’re not interested in taking apart these notions of what makes the American people tick merely for the sake of muckraking. We’re interested in pointing to the reason why these shallow explanations arise. And that is because the practical politicians have not quite gotten used to the idea that more and more, more than ever, the workers and little people are lining up their votes on what they consider to be the political issues – not on the irrational drives and irrelevant considerations (like how good a family man Earl Warren is) which are supposed to be the peculiar province of “practical politics.”

If the reader fails to be impressed by this as a noteworthy change, he should remember that the practical politician has largely proceeded in this country on the assumption that that isn’t so. It would indeed be impossible otherwise to explain the “well-planned,” “modern,” “brainy,” “streamlined” campaign of No Issues engineered by Dewey and his strategy board – a strategy which came in for a deal of ribbing from sophisticates even before the election but which was still assumed to be tailored to fit the “voting cattle.”

We, among others, have constantly spoken of the need for politicalization of the politically backward masses of this country, thinking of this politicalization in terms of the formation of an independent political organization. But it is necessary to recognize that the most elementary form of political consciousness is certainly the habit of voting on the political issues and nothing else. No election showed the advance in this respect more than the recent one, despite the form it took. It is easier to underestimate than to overstate this.

That is one reason for radicals, who may tend to be impatient with the slow political development of American labor, to be heartened and encouraged by the election returns. Not because Harry Truman was elected, but in spite of that fact.

Another one of the bromides of practical politics is that people vote for men, not programs or platforms. Above all, not for programs and platforms! This fact – and there has always been a great deal of truth in the allegation – has even been extolled as the American way of life. But this too was never less true than in the November 2 election.

One need only ask: Did the majority vote for Truman the man, apart from the politics he represented, or which they thought he represented? One has to think back only a few months, not more than four. It is true that the little man in the White House has grown in stature by virtue of his surprise victory, since nothing succeeds like success, but look —

Labor turned out to vote for a man who had conducted the most anti-labor administration in over a decade; who had brought back the most hated of anti-labor weapons, the injunction, and had used it to break three great strikes; who had (not long ago) appealed to Congress for a law far more vicious than the Taft-Hartley Act, a law to draft strikers into the army; who for three quarters of his administration had become a stench in the nostrils of labor and a laughingstock in the country by force of repeated boners; and who tried to make up in a last splurge with a lot of liberal-sounding speeches for his antilabor acts, with fair talk for foul deeds; who four months ago was the Man Nobody Wanted.

No one can claim that it was Truman the man who drew the votes. The workers were trying to vote for their political needs and desires, not for the famous Best Man. And if they had to express these needs and desires through Truman – because they were given no other alternative – that fact only underlines (1) the blind alley that labor political action is in; and (2) the fact that the people were ready to vote in spite of the “man.”

This is confirmed from another side by what happened to Wallace. There is no doubt that Wallace had a personal appeal far greater than is represented by his one and a quarter million votes. What swamped him was the fact that his putative “voting cattle” came to understand too well the meaning of his Stalinist politics.

We are sure the readers of The New International are themselves quite used to the idea of voting on issues, on program, on politics; but we stress that this familiarity on their own part should not blind them to the unusual quality of the recent election. There has always been good ground for the cynical view that the voters are sheep, herded by political manipulators, incapable of independent thinking and judgment; good ground, not because “the people are dumb” but because of their political backwardness.

But the workers have shown that they will not be led by the nose. The easiest thing to do is to sneer: “Yes, yes, so look whom they vote for – an injunctionist!” To be sure, by re-electing an injunctionist and strikebreaker, they have shown they are still blundering in a blind alley. But they were blundering in search of political independence, not of Truman’s coat tails! To come to any other conclusion is to reduce the amazing upset of November 2 to a Dipleyesque curiosity instead of viewing it as a social portent.

The effect of the upset on labor itself has been as plain as a pikestaff, and a good deal more widespread than, that medieval weapon. The reaction comes in from everywhere: “We did it!” From Kroll and Meany to the men in the UAW shops, the biggest wave of self-confidence in the power of its own political action has rolled over all of labor’s ranks. David stands almost amazed before the fallen Goliath.

The reaction has been compared to the effect of Roosevelt’s victories in spurring labor political action. The comparison does not hit the bull’s eye. There are two differences.

(1) In supporting Roosevelt, labor considered itself part of a coalition – with the New Dealers, the South, the city machines. It was an uneasy coalition but it held for a while because at least it seemed to be a winning team. The psychology of the labor leaders under Roosevelt was: “Don’t rock the ... coalition.” Moderate your demands so as not to scare off the city bosses, so as not to alienate the Southerners. Roosevelt’s incantation before this formula was: “Phil (or Bill), you know I’d love to go along with you boys, but – what’ll So-and-So say?”

In 1948 the coalition was not revived; it was broken. The fetish of Democratic Party unity was split open. Even aside from the States Rights schismatics, the city machines were even less enthusiastic about Truman than was labor, or at least just as unenthusiastic. Labor feels that it saved Truman’s neck, not any coalition; and this feeling is more important politically than the question of the value of Truman’s neck.

It scarcely even matters, from this point of view, that labor’s “We did it” is not quite accurate. Truman’s re-election was certainly based to an important degree on part of the rural vote, influenced by the fear that a Republican victory would cut into government support of farm prices. But these voters are not organized to take advantage of whatever weight they swung. Labor is. Precisely because of the difference between Roosevelt’s combination and Truman’s, labor’s political self-confidence is at an all-time high.

(2) Everyone always felt that the center of the Roosevelt coalition was – Roosevelt himself. Ah, the master politician! that old Roosevelt charm! what consummate craft! what liberal appeal! And here comes a little man without charm, no radiant appeal, no master craftsmanship, no coalition; and he – this five-times-removed imitation of a New Dealer – rides in against all odds on labor’s vote.

So it wasn’t the Roosevelt magic! It was labor’s political power. So it wasn’t the coalition! It was labor – “We did it.” What the Truman victory has shown to labor is that labor was not just a contribution to the Roosevelt pulling power.

What it has revealed is that labor’s political action is a class power, the force of the working class as a class in modern society – the biggest social power in the country, the king-maker.

This new high in the workers’ political self-confidence (cockiness, if you will) is a lighted fuse under Truman.

The next period is going to see a somewhat different kind of expectation than greeted Roosevelt’s reelections: Come across now! Don’t hand us that line about the South and the bosses. They didn’t elect you, did they?

Truman may imagine himself to be in the driver’s seat, especially after all the adulation in the press (“Miracle Man” was the caption under his picture on Newsweek’s cover), but there is a crackup due. The case is the inverse of the recent California driver who, after running his car into a lamp post and then through a shop window, was reported by the press as telling the judge earnestly: “Honest, judge, I thought somebody else was driving!” Truman may think he is behind the wheel, but there is a showdown coming.

And it can’t be very long. Which brings us to a last point about election formulas.

It is a reaction we have to this recent national pastime of beating the pollsters over the head. We do not want to give the impression that we are springing to the defense of these natural scapegoats, diversionists and pariahs, but there is a feeling that they have not been used with a maximum of justice by the politicians and press whom they misled.

For they too were following a formula of “practical politics”, which has established roots and good grounds in the past. As the best example, we direct attention to the fact that Roper quit poll-taking in early September, confident that nothing could change substantially in the next two months. Ex post facto, Gallup and Crossley now admit that they did not give sufficient weight to the trend of the last two months or so.

In terms of past performance, they were not unjustified. Fifty million voters make a big unwieldy mass; it takes time to move. “All experience has shown” that this inert mass can move, but at the pace of an ice flow in a glacier. A few people may change their minds between now and the election (assumed the pollsters on good authority) but not enough to affect the results.

But 1948 was different. If there was any one reason why the polls went haywire – and we are not making a revelation but an interpretation – it was not so much that the pollsters miscalculated the sentiments of the people as that they miscalculated the tempo at which those sentiments were changing in the last few months.

With good reason. Never before have the political reactions of the mass of people shown themselves to be so sensitive, so dynamic, so quick to change, so politically tensed-up that all the little molecules in that big mass of voters could reorient themselves in the face of the political pulls.

As a writer in Fortune magazine put it a while back (perhaps cribbing from Engels):

“Slowness of inception of U.S. labor action is no guarantee that, once started, it will not speedily reach extremes.”

This characteristic of the upset is perhaps the most significant of all. This may be because it is usually so hard to see, especially for impatient well-wishers of the working class: the capacity of the working class for apparently sudden forced marches which bring it onto heights toward which it previously had struggled by inches. The sitdown strikes of the ’30s were not aberrations. And this has to be especially borne in mind now when the question of a labor party, which seemed to have come so much nearer just before the election, has now again been delayed.

The most farsighted and thinking militants in the labor movement have seen for years that labor needs its own party, that it can make a start in solving its pressing problems only through really independent political action. Instead, the labor leadership has been blindly and self-defeatingly following the policy of the “lesser evil,” considering that it is “smart” practical politics to choose between the two capitalist politicians periodically presented by the Democrats and Republicans, plumping for the one that was “least worst” and then congratulating themselves on defeating the “main danger.”

Regularly they found themselves with another “main danger” on their hands – and finally with nothing. For four elections they mobilized their strength for Roosevelt, took the New Deal, then took the war deal; and after the war deal, they looked around themselves and took inventory of the results of fifteen years of lesser-evil politics. And they found themselves, in 1947, with a president who was breaking more strikes per month than ever; a Congress, the notorious 80th, which was belaboring them with anti-labor laws; a Democratic administration using the loyalty purge to cut down union militants.

And in the face of all this, they still had nothing – that is, no political instrument of their own to swing their political weight for themselves. They had to take a long breath, hold their nose, and go for Truman ; because he too was a lesser evil, and they were caught in their own system as in a trap.

The lesser-evil injunctionist won. In their unexpected relief, one could hear the labor leaders blowing out deep breaths from New York to California – just as if the lorn maiden of labor had acquired a Galahad. They reacted like a racetrack gambler who has been losing thousands steadily on a system to beat the horses, and desperately throws his last couple of dollars on a long chance; when – 0 delight! – the long chance gallops in and pays off fifty. “Look,” he chortles, “didn’t I tell you my system will work?” He forgets that he has been losing his shirt on his system, and even the fifty looks so good only because he was expecting to lose his underdrawers too.

Depression changed to euphoria. The pre-election indications that even the top labor heads were thinking in terms of a new party came to nothing.

For shortly before November it had looked for a while as if there was an immediate prospect of a third-party development powered by leading unions. There was the universal expectation that a bad defeat for Truman, coupled with the defection of the Wallaceites and the Southerners, would deal a shattering blow to the Democratic Party. Walter Reuther had issued his well-known statement which was widely interpreted as meaning a drive for a labor-based third party if the Democratic Party cracked up. William Green himself had come out for a third party.

It is now obvious that this immediate prospect has been laid by the heels as a result of the Democratic victory.

It is paradoxical at first blush. If the election had shown a marked swing to the right with a Dewey- Republican victory (which in itself would have been no cause for joy), then the labor movement might have been compelled to swing to the left, to break with the old parties and form its own party.

But since there was not a right swing but a left swing (which is good in itself), the labor movement is likely to remain bound for another period to its lesser-evil and tail-the-Democrats policy – and this is not good.

That is the way it is working out, however, and it shows that the labor movement still has another lesson ahead of it.

The labor leadership proclaims that they are girding themselves for a really big play this time: no labor party, no third party – they are going to take over and transform the Democratic Party ... they say, In this pronouncement, they too indicate that they can no longer continue to put forward the perspective of merely “supporting” the Democrats. Even in their own minds, and before their rank and file, they are making a turn – to “capturing” the Democratic Party.

To be perfectly fair about it, if this is a proposition for really taking over the Democratic Party and converting it into a labor party or a farmer-labor party, transforming it into our own party, not what it is now and has been – then no dogmatic objection can be made to the aim. There are only two things wrong with the scheme:

  1. The labor leaders are not serious about transforming the Democratic Party into a labor party; and

  2. They cannot do it.

But look at Michigan!” we will be told. Hasn’t the Auto Workers union captured the Democratic Party in that state?

The fact is, however, that the UAW did not capture the Michigan Democratic Party. It merely picked up the pieces. There was no opposition to speak of, because there was virtually no state organization left when the Auto Workers stepped in. If the Democratic Party had been as badly cut up in the election as was expected, then there might have been a similar situation nationally, or an approach to such a situation. But then the attempt would not have been worth while. If it was worth while for the UAW in Michigan, it was only because of the continuing pro-Democratic orientation of the CIO nationally.

A labor gossip columnist (Riesel) has vouchsafed the “inside dope” that the general staffs of the CIO and AFL are planning to outflank the Democratic Party by making a kind of sneak attack in the primaries. The strategy is supposed to be this: Only a small number vote in the primaries; if the PAC and AFL-LLPE mobilize their strength for the primary elections, they can nominate their own candidates under the Democratic label; thus the Democratic Party will be “captured.” But in the first place, if the AFL-CIO go all-out in the primaries, then these latter will no longer remain the quiet, formal affairs they are now.

And in the second place, even capturing primaries here and there does not mean capturing the Democratic Party machines. (In California, for example, where cross-filing in the primaries is permitted, the victory of one party in the primaries of another party has only the significance of eliminating opposition in a given election; it has no effect on the control of the machine.)

In fact, one has to ask: What is the concrete meaning of “capturing the Democratic Party?” The Upton Sinclair-EPIC forces in California once “captured” the Democratic Party in that state – for one election; Sinclair’s defeat saw control reverting back to the old hands. If labor forms its own party, its first setback would not mean that it loses control. What does it mean in the case of the Democratic Party?

The fact is that the basic structure of the old parties does not depend on the electorate – on the “voting cattle” – either in the primary or general elections. Just because the labor movement provided the votes for Truman does not mean that it can take over Truman’s machine by means of those votes.

What holds together one of these old-party political machines – the Democratic or the Republican? First and foremost: patronage.

Truman’s victory has meant revival for the Democrats not primarily for any moral reason, but because it means that the Democrats retain the Washington pork barrel. An all-out attempt to transform the Democratic Party into a labor party would have to be directed not merely against the local bosses but against the Truman administration. Labor’s votes may have elected Truman, but Truman is not going to hand over his party to his saviors from across the class lines.

The second element that the old-party machine depends on for its basic character is formed by the innumerable threads of its connections with the moneybags, with business, with the capitalist press, and with capitalism in all its aspects. Lundberg has documented and traced these connections in his America’s Sixty Families in sufficient detail to show that this is no abstraction but the American political reality.

Of course labor can “take over” the Democratic label here and there, but it takes over only a shell. After toiling and moiling with as much sweat and energy and time as they would need to build their own party, the labor forces would find themselves at exactly the same place as if they had built their own party: they will have taken over themselves.

We emphasize that this is true if the aim is to transform the Democratic Party into a labor party (as we will be told it is). Actually, the aim of the top strategists will be considerably different. It will be merely a reshuffling of the labor leaders with the old- line politicians. The former want nothing more than a continuation of the old coalition of the capitalist politicians and labor, because these capitalist-minded labor leaders are just as dead set against following a really independent class line in politics as ever. They will not go further under their own steam. And this far they can go.

But a genuine labor party is not merely one in which labor leaders replace a few other politicians in the councils of the donkey. It is a party based on labor’s organizations, one which does not pull its punches out of tender regard for the vested interests of capital; a party which the workers can recognize not merely as their “friend” but as their own.

And this, in the last analysis, is also what was wrong with the Wallace party. In control of the party and dictating its policy was a force which the workers recognized to be alien to the labor movement, as alien as are the Democratic politicians. This force was the Communist Party, which imposed upon the Wallace movement its appeasement-of-Russia policy.

Back in early 1948, ten million votes was no pipe-dream for the Wallaceites; there was a groundswell which registered the widespread desire for independent third-party action. And in spite of its sponsorship, the Wallace movement showed that the “practical” objections to building a third party could not hold water. It got on the ballot in forty-five states: how long will it take Reuther and Green and the rest to capture the Democratic Party in forty-five states?

The electric shock of the Truman upset has not quite subsided in labor’s ranks, but already the first results of the president’s re-election appear to be disquieting. There are not yet any official pronouncements, but all indications are that Truman will carry out his Taft-Hartley pledges to the extent of eliminating any law by that name from the books and restoring the right to a closed shop. A new law will take the place of both the Wagner Act and Taft-Hartley, one which may even retain the hated injunction features of T-H.

It is not too risky to make this statement right now: If this new law had been proposed in 1947 to replace the Wagner Act, the labor movement would have raised a violent howl; now it may be hailed as a victory, the fruits of labor’s good and faithful services at the polls. This is how the lesser-evil policy works regularly.

The over-all question before labor is: Can Truman give the workers what they want and need and must have? We do not believe he can or wants to do so. He has a war economy to run, not a love feast with labor. Why should he be expected to change his spots, this injunctionist and strike-breaker? Out of gratitude perhaps?

The payoff will come by 1950, when the next congressional elections take place. On the one hand, the labor leaders will have to show what they mean by and what they can do about “taking over” the Democratic Party. On the other hand, as disappointment with Truman mounts, there will be a new impulsion toward labor-party and third-party action. The character of that election itself sets the goal: building local and state organizations to run independent labor candidates.

There is the immediate goal for militants and labor-party advocates in the unions. It is not a long distance off; it is just around the corner. It may be that the sneak attack on the Democrats may have to be lived through for experience before the labor-party wave rolls over the labor leadership. But the time to start is – now.

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