Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Irving Howe

Elections Showed Political Force of Labor Movement

The Election and the Prospects
for a Labor Party

(15 November 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 46, 15 November 1948, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Many of the points that need to be made with regard to the election have already appeared in last week’s issue of Labor Action. Here we would only add a few others, especially insofar as they affect the prospects for the formation of a labor party.

Without question, the election returns must be seen as a swing to the left. By that we mean the following: the tradition of the New Deal remains strongly entrenched in the minds of millions of Americans, especially American workers. By the New Deal they do not mean, as we do, a patch-quilt attempt to rehabilitate capitalism by means of social reform; they simply do not think in such abstract terms. They mean rather the isolated pieces of social legislation, taken out of the context of pro- or anti-capitalism; they mean the legislation which they believe helped them to organize unions, granted them a measure of social security and gave work relief to the unemployed.

In that sense, then, the New Deal remains a vital factor in current politics. The masses of people want more reforms; they want concrete, activated legislation in favor of the poorer strata of the population. That means, specifically: price control, housing, social security, abolition of the Taft-Hartley Act.

However imperfectly, however dismally, Truman came, in the course of the campaign, to represent these things to the bulk of the American workers. Dewey, whom Harold Ickes aptly called “the candidate in sneakers,” broke the all-time record for mouthing vacuous platitudes; by comparison, Harding spoke out courageously on all the ills of the world and Coolidge was a positive thinker. Wallace kept losing support steadily, and for the good reason that his tie with the Stalinists became clearer each day of his campaign. There is no way of proving such an assertion, but we strongly believe that if the vote had taken place five or six months earlier, when the Stalinist tie-up was not as obvious, Wallace would probably have received at least three times as many votes.

Political Factors Produced Victory

Nor is there any question as to who elected Truman. One can prove that simply by elimination. Except for his own personal campaign, there was no powerful force working for him other than the labor movement. The political subsidiaries of the CIO – the PAC branches – have become extremely efficient in the last few years, as they have accumulated experience in the routine techniques of vote-getting. After the election, Jim Farley, a shrewd observer of small matters, said that Truman was elected by two factors: sympathy and the labor vote. We agree, but we would only add that the two factors are probably one.

The unions did not elicit enthusiasm on a large scale for Truman. Money contributions to the PAC lagged badly. Nonetheless, in so crucial an industrial center as Detroit the PAC was so efficient at getting workers to register that the city had the largest total registration of its history; the same holds true, to one or another extent, for other places. The workers voted for Truman, by and large, with reluctance, but as someone has remarked, a reluctant vote counts as much as an enthusiastic one. But – only for the moment, only arithmetically. The political dynamic behind that reluctance is something else again, to which we will return shortly.

Now a word on the so-called personal aspect of the campaign. A great deal has been said about Truman having gotten a sympathy vote. There is probably some truth to this, though the forces of sympathy not having been organized on a precinct basis like the forces of labor, it is difficult to prove the point.

However, if Truman got such a sympathy vote, it is largely a matter of POLITICAL feeling. Truman, for all his weakness and ineptness, seemed to many voters little more than an unfortunate man who had stumbled into an excessive responsibility; it was as if they had discovered that the next-door barber had suddenly been forced to take responsibility for the U.S. Treasury Department. A little ludicrous, but still you sympathize with him.

However, suppose the only alternative you see is someone like Dewey – the creature of plastics and chromium, contrived in a political beauty parlor and polished with the oil of caution. To millions of voters Dewey must have seemed more like a machine than a human being, and – this is the important point – a machine welded together by the most slickly reactionary forces in the country.

Truman seemed an inadequate human being, but a least a human being. Nobody could have suspected as much of Dewey. (The only human trait he showed was a barely concealed vanity – in this instance, the vanity of anticipation.) In other words, Truman seemed like “a man of the people” (all too much so) while Dewey seemed like a creature of Wall Street. That is a political fact, not a psychological speculation.

What now? The most encouraging immediate post-election result is the strong wave of confidence that seems to have swept over many workers. One overhears it in conversation in the streets and one hears it repeatedly reported by men in factories. ‘‘We did it,” they say, “and now we should collect.”

Good, we’re all for that. We’re for it, whether or not a labor party is formed. John Smith was elected Congressman in your district on the basis of a “pro-labor” platform and with the decisive help of your union. Okay; keep visiting him, remind him of his pledges, put a little pressure on – that’s what the CIO-PAC proposes and we think it’s a good idea. As one UAW official has said to his members: “We worked and we worked hard and successfully at this job of politics ... We now must demand our full wages for a job well done.”

The truth is that on an immediate basis the likelihood for the formation of a labor party is sharply decreased. We may imagine the reasoning of even those labor leaders, like some UAW officials, who had favored a labor party to run something like this:

“Well, sure, we were in favor of a labor party, and ultimately we still are. But look. We put Truman into office and he knows it. We now have a group of very competent officials – Governor Bowles in Connecticut, Senators Humphreys and Douglas in Minnesota and Illinois – who are close to us politically and who adhere to the ADA point of view. Why not push ahead? Why not try to take over the Democratic party entirely, as we have already succeeded in doing in a few places? We can apply pressure on these people; their tenure depends on us. A move for a new party now would be ... premature.”

From the point of view of those who want to see an independent political labor force, this sort of reasoning is, of course, invalid. It still thinks of the labor movement as a beggar – even if, at the moment, a more importunate beggar – who has to wait for crumbs at the liberal door – and how often has that door been slammed in the workers’ faces!

No doubt there will be a honeymoon between the Truman administration and the labor movement. No doubt, too, some concessions will be made to the American workers. The Taft-Hartley Act may be repealed or amended, though nothing as useful as the old Wagner Act will replace it. Some sort of housing program may be instituted and some wispy figment of price control begun. But that is only for the beginning.

Demonstrated Political Force of Labor

Remember that there are two ways of looking at the election results: (1) labor got “its boys” elected; (2) labor showed itself a decisive political force, with increasing consciousness of its own power, and increasing talent for getting out the vote.

We venture to state that it is the second of these factors that is the most important ultimately and that it is the second which will certainly carry most weight a year or two from now.

For the Truman administration can satisfy the demands of the workers only up to a point. Where that point is would be foolhardy to predict; we do not want to indulge in any naive or crude “Marxistical” generalizations according to which capitalism cannot satisfy any of the workers’ demands. There is a great difference between the ultimate, basic status of the working class and its insistence on a given reform. The former cannot be satisfactorily improved by capitalism, but the latter can be granted.

Nonetheless, a breaking point will come. One reason that breaking point is likely to come fairly soon is that the election result will, if it has not already done so, install a. tremendous sense of confidence in the workers. They will feel (and quite naturally so!) that they were strong enough to change the course of the election, hence they should be strong enough to win better wages in the coming negotiations.

Probably not in the spring of 1949, more likely in the spring of 1950, there will be a serious wage crisis, with the possibility of large strikes not at all excluded. For remember that we are still living in an inflationary economy, that the war preparations program continues to eat up vast proportions of the national income – and that these factors are bound to leave their mark on living standards. No matter what the Truman administration does, these more powerful and subterranean economic developments will stimulate large sections of* the workers to further dissatisfaction. And this dissatisfaction will have behind it a newly acquired sense of political confidence.

Labor Has Shown What It Can Do

That means, we think, that the possibility of a labor party is probably decreased for the moment, but that the social impulsions driving to-- ward it are likely to become more powerful in the next two or so years. Actually, if there were in this country a socialist movement of, say, 30 or 40 thousand people – even a socialist movement with an unsatisfactory program from the point of view of this paper – it could play a tremendous role in pushing ahead the date on which a labor party is formed.

But the Socialist Party of this country is little more than a memory of an electoral machine. And its leader, Norman Thomas, is one of the most astonishing muddleheads this country has even seen. We intend in the next few weeks to return to the election campaign of the Socialist Party – a very shabby business it was. But if the proportion of New York City holds for the rest of the country, the SP vote will be increased over 1944 by about 2½ times.

That means that there are about 200,000 people in this country who consider themselves socialists of one sort or another and whose pressure in behalf of a labor party could be considerable if it were organized. But the SP, which is one of the most SECTARIAN organizations in all of socialist history, is quite unable to do that; it suffers from the worst of all diseases: self-deception.

It does not even have the good sense to acknowledge to itself and to the radical public that it is nothing more than a sect among other sects, and hence indulges in all sorts of ridiculous pretension, such as confusing a roster of “big-name” signatures with mass support. And finally it suffers from the worst sort of bureaucratism: the bureaucratism of its leader’s personal whim. Whatever Thomas says at any moment becomes the SP’s point of view.

But let us leave this subject for the moment, to return to it a few weeks hence. The SP is not going to be the force to stimulate organization of a labor party: that much is certain.

In the meantime, the handful of labor militants has at its disposal stronger arguments than ever in favor of the formation of a labor party. Labor has shown its strength; let that strength be utilized in creating its own political house.

Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 6 October 2018