On history and the dirty break

August 15, 2018

Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset in a congressional primary election against one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. House has inspired discussion and debate about how this campaign fits into the project of advancing the socialist left. SocialistWorker.org is hosting a dialogue in our Readers’ Views column. This installment has a contribution from Eric Blanc.

A Few Lessons from History

Eric Blanc | I’d like to thank comrade Alan Maass for his response to my contribution to this debate. There’s a lot that could be said, but I’d like to very briefly challenge one of his arguments in particular. In Alan’s response to my article on the feasibility of tactically using the Democratic Party ballot line to further the socialist project, he writes: “It seems contrary to the socialist approach to discount any previous history.”

The problem with this is that I did provide multiple historical examples in my piece. From the 1920s, I showed that a dirty break strategy led to the foundation of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, the most electorally successful labor party in U.S. history.

From the 1930s, I showed that the co-optation of the labor movement into the Democratic Party did not come about from attempts by the socialist left to use the ballot line to further a project of building class independence — such a project wasn’t seriously attempted, since the Communist Party was ordered from Moscow to openly ally with the “democratic” wing of the bourgeoisie.

I think it’s important to delve deeper into the history of labor and revolutionary socialism on these types of questions because the actual experience of our movement is much more complicated than many comrades seem to assume.

For instance, many comrades believe that it’s a matter of principle for revolutionary socialists to never support candidates running on the ballot of a capitalist party. Yet for what it’s worth, our Bolshevik predecessors did in fact do this on many occasions.

In both the 1907 and 1912 elections, for instance, Lenin’s current advocated that Marxists support “the compilation of common lists of electors” with liberal parties in the second round of the elections (see the English language documents compiled in the 1974 collection “Resolutions and Decisions of the CPSU, Volume 1”).

Lenin sometimes even openly advocated a lesser-evil voting tactic in the second round of elections in Russia: “When a socialist really believes in a Black-Hundred danger and is sincerely combating it — he votes for the liberals without any bargaining.”

My point here, of course, is not that we should support lesser-evilism in the very different U.S. context. It makes little sense to determine our electoral (or other) tactics for today from quotes and resolutions from Tsarist Russia circa 1907. But these examples are useful in showing that our revolutionary socialist predecessors often displayed more tactically flexibility than many comrades have yet acknowledged.

To take an example closer to home, and more relevant to our debates, we should also take a closer look at the tactics employed by socialists to found the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) in the early 1920s. Unfortunately, comrade Paul D’Amato’s long polemic against my Jacobin piece on this question tries to prove that a dirty break never actually occurred at this time.

Paul points to the fact that the “nonpartisan” farmer wing of Minnesota’s movement was not oriented to building a third party. But I also noted this in my piece — and this is precisely why I showed that the dirty break was effectively employed by the labor wing of the movement led by radical socialist William Mahoney.

Paul also correctly points out (as I had done as well) the important impact of the ruling class’ decision to restrict its electoral laws in response to the socialist insurgency.

But contrary to Paul’s argument, this anti-democratic legislation in 1921 did not invalidate the dirty break strategy, it confirmed it — indeed, Mahoney’s wing was convinced from the outset that independent efforts by farmers and workers to systematically use capitalist party lines to build their autonomous organizational forces would sooner or later lead the ruling class to crack down, thereby facilitating the creation of an independent party of and for working people.

As I explained in Jacobin, Mahoney was quite open about how and why he thought it made sense tactically to use a capitalist party ballot line:

Harboring no illusions about the nature of the Democratic and Republican Parties, Mahoney had always treated participation in capitalist party primaries as, at best, a temporary expedient to build up labor’s political strength. He argued that “the nonpartisan idea is all right in a great emergency...but it can never result in building up a permanent and reliable political agency.” Even while running in the Republican primaries, Mahoney noted, “all the time we had in mind that the Farmer-Labor Party was the goal...we knew at the outset that the movement would inevitably end in such an independent party. It was just a matter of education.”

One can make a case that such tactics wouldn’t work today, since conditions are different. That’s a legitimate discussion. As I pointed out in my piece, the criteria for using the ballot line today would have to be different than it was in 1920-22 since the labor movement is currently significantly weaker. But there’s no need to deny that dirty break tactics were effectively used to found the strongest example of a labor party we’ve seen in U.S. history.

And contrary to what Paul implies in his piece, the fact that the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party in 1944 — i.e., decades after its foundation — became integrated into the Democratic Party does not somehow demonstrate any inherent flaw in dirty break tactics. That’s like arguing that someone was never born because they were killed 20 years later.

The later trajectory of the FLP had literally nothing to do with the dirty break strategy. By the 1930s, the original radical socialist FLP leadership of William Mahoney had been displaced by moderate leaders who had objected to Mahoney’s militant alliance with Communists in the 1920s to fight for a nationwide Labor Party.

As the Trotskyists of the period argued, the decisive transformation of the FLP came only after Popular Front Stalinists infiltrated it and subordinated it to New Deal Democrats in the mid-1930s and 1940s. Rather than rely on Paul’s extremely one-sided polemic, comrades interested in a nuanced assessment of this history would likely gain more from reading the actual (highly positive) balance sheet of the FLP made by Minnesota’s Trotskyists. The FLP’s problematic role in the 1934 strikes is not even mentioned.

As Socialist Workers Party leader Warren Creel argued in 1946, the “Farmer-Labor Party’s quarter century of activity provides the longest experience with a labor party that U.S. history offers up to the present...It was not just a pro-labor party, it was a party of organized labor...Minnesota’s experience refutes the assertion that the two party system of politics is ‘natural’ to the United States.”

I think we should do more to learn from these and similar experiences, rather than dismissing them if they don’t fit into our ideological preconceptions. Whether we like it not, history — and effective revolutionary politics — is messy.

Further Reading

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