The Ballot and the Break

Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, the most successful labor party in US history, is rich in lessons for challenging the two-party system.

A portrait of Floyd B. Olson, the Farmer-Labor Party governor of Minnesota. Eric Wilcox / Flickr

The oldest political dispute inside the US left isn’t going away anytime soon. Revelations about the Democratic National Committee’s pro–Hillary Clinton intrigues and local victories for leftists in the November elections have added fuel to the fire of that age-old question: how should socialists confront the two-party system?

On one side, supporters of “realigning” the Democratic Party insist that given the constraints of the US political system, transforming the party is the sole viable strategy for progressive politics. On the other side, advocates of a clean break from the Democrats and Republicans see any involvement within capitalist parties as an unprincipled dead end.

Proponents of each stance can rightly point to the practical failures of their rivals’ approaches over the past century, especially at the national level. But both sides have ignored the example of the most electorally successful workers’ party in the history of the United States — the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (FLP).

Founded by socialists in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, the FLP built a mass base in the 1920s and captured the highest levels of state office in the 1930s, both enabling the passage of important socioeconomic reforms and helping to consolidate a powerful independent workers’ movement.

As party militant Warren Creel explained in 1946, the “Farmer-Labor Party’s quarter century of activity provides the longest experience with a labor party that US history offers up to the present . . . It was not just a pro-labor party, it was a party of organized labor.” Had the rest of the United States gone the way of Minnesota, our labor movement today would likely resemble the rest of the advanced capitalist world instead of standing on the brink of annihilation.

Eager to extract political lessons from how Minnesota’s socialists established an independent mass working-class party, I began researching the formation of the FLP about a year ago. My working assumption was that the experience of the North Star State would vindicate the strategy of a “clean break” with the two major parties.

But it soon became apparent to me why this history has been so widely ignored: the tactics deployed in founding the Farmer-Labor Party challenge the orientations of both major poles in the debate. To my surprise, I found that the Minnesota experience demonstrates the potential viability of what I would call a “dirty break” approach: the use of Democratic and Republican ballot lines to implode the two-party system.

The Nonpartisan League

An array of popular insurgencies swept the United States in the first decades of the last century. Millions of workers and farmers turned to mass action and self-organization to defend their economic interests.

In 1916, Minnesota was polarized by a militant Teamsters’ strike. An even more contentious struggle erupted the following year when railway workers struck. Taking advantage of favorable wartime conditions, labor unions witnessed an unprecedented rate of growth. Minnesota’s employers and state officials increasingly turned to repression, union-busting, and strike-breaking in the hope of turning back the tide.

Opposition to predatory corporations and their governmental enablers was equally widespread in the countryside. Relative farm prices were plunging, and vast numbers of farmers faced economic disaster. Seeking to give political expression to this rural discontent, failed flax farmer and former Socialist Party organizer Arthur Townley founded the Nonpartisan League (NPL) in 1915.

The organization spread like a prairie fire, first in North Dakota, then across the Midwest, and even into Canada. Individuals joined by paying dues, which went towards financing farmer political candidates. And on an electoral level, the NPL took a novel approach: instead of building a new third party or allying with a “progressive” wing within the existing parties, the organization ran its own independent candidates within Democratic and Republican primaries. Since Republicans were dominant in Minnesota, the main battles took place within that party’s primaries, which were open to all voters.

Arguing that both parties were equally in the pay of big business, the NPL insisted on political and organizational independence from the leaderships of each. Nonpartisan League candidates pledged to uphold the group’s platform and were financially as well as organizationally dependent on the NPL during and after elections. Perhaps most importantly, when an NPL candidate lost the primary election, the organization nevertheless refused to support the party’s nominee in the general election.

This “nonpartisan” approach allowed the organization to sidestep many of the very real obstacles to the formation of third parties under the anti-democratic US political regime. One historian of the NPL notes that “if it had adopted third-party tactics at the outset, it could not have won its first electoral battle and, deprived of the motive power which comes from success, would probably have had a short and inglorious existence.” But its rapid growth and electoral victories put the NPL on a collision course with the Democratic and Republican apparatuses.

Neither party was resigned to letting itself be taken over by what it saw as extremist interlopers. The 1918 election for Minnesota governor gave working people the first taste of the lengths to which political elites were willing to go to preserve their domination.

The dynamic campaign of NPL candidate Charles Lindbergh (father of the famous aviator) for the Republican Party gubernatorial nomination was met with slanderous red-baiting, court injunctions, and arrests. Mob violence was even encouraged. Lindbergh was shot at during a rally, and his campaign organizers were tarred and feathered by vigilantes. Most consequential of all was a brazen gambit by top Democratic Party leaders: to defeat Lindbergh and protect the two-party system, they called on their supporters to vote for the incumbent Republican candidate.

Repression and bipartisan collaboration proved (just barely) sufficient to defeat Lindbergh in the primaries. But the 1918 gubernatorial election was a critical turning point since it also witnessed the first steps by Minnesota’s labor movement to ally with the NPL against the Democrats and Republicans.

Socialists and Labor Politics

Farmer insurgencies in the rest of the country often failed to make durable alliances with urban workers. But Minnesota labor’s turn to independent politics set the state down a very different path. The roots of this farmer-labor alliance lie in the particular trajectory of Minnesota’s socialist movement.

Until 1910, the state Socialist Party (SP) had little influence. Trade unions in Minnesota overwhelmingly lent their support to Democratic and Republican politicians. Yet after 1910 the SP was given a new lease on life by Thomas Van Lear, the dynamic head of the Minneapolis machinists union. Under Van Lear’s leadership, the city’s party transformed itself into a pragmatic mass organization oriented toward promoting workers’ immediate struggles and winning local office. While upholding the SP’s principled opposition to both capitalist parties, it no longer treated elections primarily as an opportunity to propagandize for socialism.

Urging voters to “strike at the ballot box,” Van Lear declared that “working-class political activity does not decrease the interest in unionism, it infuses into the whole working-class movement enthusiasm, hope, confidence, and militancy.” With a solid labor base and pragmatic leadership, the local SP articulated a militant socialist reformism focused on fighting for the basic interests of working people. “Blurred ideology,” argues one historian, was “the most important feature of socialism in Minneapolis.”

The SP’s new approach was a good fit for the existing consciousness of Minnesota’s working class. In 1916, Van Lear won the Minneapolis mayoral race as an independent socialist candidate. On a statewide level, however, the SP remained relatively weak. Most Minnesota unions continued to support the Democratic Party up through the 1918 primaries.

Yet things began to change with the inspiring growth of the farmers’ NPL and Lindbergh’s gubernatorial campaign, which captured the imagination of wide sectors of the working class. Ongoing state repression of strikes pushed labor further toward political action. In the second round of the 1918 elections, a growing number of trade unions shifted their stance and backed independent farmer-labor candidates for office.

Hoping to extend its mass influence by replicating the NPL’s successful tactics, the Minnesota Socialist Party made a bold move to seize the moment. In July 1919 it morphed into the Working People’s Nonpartisan League (WPNPL) in alliance with the majority of the state’s labor unions. Though the new organization upheld the class struggle core of SP politics, it eschewed talk of violent revolution and dropped explicit Marxist rhetoric. Instead it made the case that meeting working people’s urgent needs required capturing the reins of government, to enact the “gradual transformation of the industrial system from exploitation and oppression to one of cooperation and freedom.”

At the WPNPL’s founding conference, William Mahoney — the socialist labor leader who served as its president — declared:

We are at the parting of the ways. We are now going into politics. Are we going to . . . work in the same old narrow groove? No, we must reach out and do things so that we will enlist the support of the thousands of unorganized workers. . . . We are in a position now to change the whole political complexion of this state. The politicians are terrified. In St. Paul we have the politicians on their knees. Let us put the politicians out of office.

A small minority of Minnesota’s Socialist Party members refused to go along with the WPNPL’s founding. In their view, to run candidates on the ballot line of a capitalist party represented an unacceptable form of opportunism. Denouncing the NPL and the socialists who sought to emulate its tactics, the SP’s national office called on its state affiliates to “maintain in the utmost possible vigor the propaganda of Socialism, unadulterated by association of office seekers. . . . The social revolution, not political office, is the end and the aim of the Socialist Party.”

Most of these critics soon went on to become Communists. But Communists remained marginal in the North Star State, and under Mahoney’s hard-nosed, class-struggle leadership, a united Minnesota labor movement surged into the political arena.

Integration or Independence

The 1920 elections presented the first major test of strength for the new alliance between Minnesota’s two autonomous nonpartisan leagues. To take the steam out of the farmer-labor threat, the Republicans this time ran a moderate for governor and incorporated key planks of their opponents’ economic platform.

But the leagues held firm against such attempts at co-optation. Their new alliance ran a full slate of candidates in all Republican, and a few Democratic, statewide primaries. When the alliance’s candidates lost in the primaries, they refused to support the mainstream candidate in the general election and ran as independents instead. In the cities, where local electoral rules removed the need to run in primaries in the first place, the WPNPL ran an independent slate of “Labor Candidates” against Republicans and Democrats alike.

Though most of the alliance’s candidates lost, its statewide average electoral result of 34 percent was a dramatic step forward. Moreover, the campaign was highly effective as an organizing tool in its own right. Public rallies, musical performances, newspapers, posters, and buttons all spread the movement’s message and deepened its momentum. By the end of the year, the WPNPL membership had shot up to forty-five thousand.

The 1920 elections also served as an important opportunity to broaden labor’s popular reach beyond skilled, organized workers. The WNPNL, for instance, successfully courted the support of black voters in Minneapolis, building off of mayor Van Lear’s vocal opposition to a planned theatrical production of Birth of a Nation. And the newfound political clout of working women following the 1920 establishment of female suffrage could be seen in the growth of the league’s women’s associations.

After the Republican Party’s failed attempts at co-optation, it turned to yet another approach to deflate the popular insurgency. In 1921, the Republican state legislature passed a law that banned candidates in primary elections from subsequently running for the same office on another party’s ballot line in the general election. Minnesota’s governor declared that the farmer-labor alliance was making a “mockery of the oath of party allegiance voluntarily taken by all candidates who file at the primary.” The alliance now faced a difficult choice: it either had to dissolve itself into the existing parties or form a third party.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Democratic Party incorporated the bulk of farmer-labor demands into its program and proposed that the alliance fuse with “Progressive Democrats” in the upcoming 1922 elections “to join hands against the Republicans.”

This latest bipartisan operation to save the two-party system now seemed on the verge of success. Arthur Townley, the leader of the farmers’ NPL, gave his blessing to the fusion deal, and the league agreed to the Democrats’ proposal for a joint electoral ticket in the 1922 elections. Townley insisted that participation in the mainstream primaries was the only viable way forward. In his view, “American thought and American political history are against new party movements.” The two-party system, he declared, was here to stay.

Had there not been a sufficiently principled and influential political current willing to push back against these intense external and internal pressures, the farmer-labor movement would have been absorbed back into the two-party system in 1922. But at this critical juncture, WPNPL socialists fought hard to uphold class independence. Denouncing the NPL’s drift to electoral fusion, Mahoney declared that the time had come to break completely with the twin parties of capital.

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.”

The Dirty Break

The conflict over how to confront the new electoral restrictions and political enticements came to a head at the 1922 league conventions. Through a series of sharp political debates and battles, Mahoney’s labor wing and its supporters within the farmers’ movement eventually overcame the opposition of Townley and other moderate leaders.

Not only was the agreement with the Democrats rescinded, but it was agreed that organized workers and farmers would henceforth run for office only as candidates of the Farmer-Labor Party. Historian Arthur Naftalin notes that this exceptional “refusal to turn to the Democratic Party as the vehicle of protest in Minnesota” stemmed primarily from the strength of the core leaders’ “conviction that collaboration with the dominant elements of either party would constitute a betrayal of their cause.”

The test of practice soon showed that organized labor’s strength at the head of broad popular alliance was sufficient to overcome the hurdles of a semi-authoritarian electoral system. In the 1922-23 midterms, the FLP elected two of its candidates to the US Senate and one to the US Congress.

This was a remarkable outcome, especially since the Minnesota Democratic Party had sought to reassert its “progressive” credentials by running feminist leader Annie Dickie Olesen for US Senate, the first woman ever endorsed by a major party for high office anywhere in the country. (Clearly the 2016 presidential primary wasn’t the first time the Democrats have wielded hollow identitarian politics to fend off left-labor electoral challengers).

In response to the Olesen campaign’s claim that support for a third party would be a wasted vote, FLP Senate candidate Henrik Shipstead replied: “The only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is that they work in different shifts for the same cause — except in emergencies like this, when they work overtime together.”

Despite the 1922 victories, the fight to found a new party was not yet won. A significant layer of farmer and labor leaders continued to advocate running on capitalist party ballot lines. And a much wider group saw no need for any organized party, preferring to preserve only a skeleton structure oriented solely to winning elections.

Against such views, Mahoney argued that the leagues’ organizational weaknesses left them and their elected representatives vulnerable to co-optation and politics as usual. Lambasting the “erroneous idea that [the FLP] may function successfully as a loose aggregation of well-meaning idealists,” over the course of 1923 and 1924 he fought to transform the FLP into a well-structured, mass workers’ party.

Mahoney and his comrades argued that the Farmer-Labor Party’s survival and its “fidelity to principle” depended on cohering itself organizationally. While capitalist parties could afford to be diffuse, the political strength of working people depended on collective organization. The FLP was “doomed to go the way of other third parties unless fortified by a more compact and powerful structure than the mere shell provided by the law.”

What soon became known as “the Mahoney plan” consisted of the following proposals: the separate farmer and labor leagues would be transformed into a single unified organization; the highest decision-making body would be the party convention to decide on binding policy decisions for all leaders and candidates; labor unions would directly affiliate to the FLP and serve as the party’s main source of funding; through organizational and financial means, party structures would exercise decisive control over the content of electoral campaigns and the actions of elected FLP representatives; and, finally, between elections an executive committee would organize political and educational campaigns for the membership and working people generally.

A range of FLP leaders sharply objected to the proposed reorganization. Many farmer representatives resented the idea of granting hegemony over the party’s internal affairs to organized workers. Key labor leaders including Van Lear also fought the proposals, fearing the changes would move the party in too radical a political direction. Sharp debates on these issues shook the leagues’ 1924 conventions. But after what one participant described as “a desperate and most dramatic battle of oratory lasting four or five hours,” ultimately “the Mahoney plan” was democratically passed by the two leagues’ memberships, despite the ongoing objections of key leaders. The farmer and labor leagues merged and a new party was born.

The decisive importance of this organizational restructuring was borne out by subsequent experience. Creel notes that nationally, the “prosperity of the ‘twenties was a lean time for political protest movements. The Minnesota party, however, was able to survive the general decline that killed off the national Farmer-Labor movement precisely because of its stable organized labor backing. While the Minnesota FLP suffered along with the rest, it continued to be, not a third party, but the second party.”

Having endured the downturn, the Farmer-Labor Party was well positioned to take advantage of the crisis opened by the 1929 stock market crash. In an unprecedented, watershed victory, the FLP won the 1930 Minnesota governor’s race and then held that office throughout the 1930s. The strengths and weaknesses of the FLP in power were not unlike those of social-democratic administrations elsewhere in the world. Though relations with militant workers were rocky during the 1934 “Teamster’s Rebellion,” under FLP governor Floyd Olson Minnesota instituted a public works program, anti-foreclosure laws, a pro-worker labor code, public pensions and unemployment insurance. And when Franklin Roosevelt put forward his proposed Social Security plan in 1935, which excluded farm and domestic workers, the radical alternative bill introduced in the House of Representatives came from FLP congressman Ernest Lundeen and earned the NAACP’s endorsement.

A detailed analysis of the FLP administrations, as well as the reasons for the party’s decline after World War II, lies beyond the scope of this article. The important point, however, is that in contrast to the rest of the United States, Minnesota’s working class had its own independent political expression throughout this critical decade of struggle. Had formations like the FLP existed in other states at the onset of the Depression, it’s easy to imagine that a nationwide party of and for working people might have emerged in the 1930s. Instead, the explosion of workplace militancy was ultimately absorbed into the machinery of the Democratic Party.

Lessons for Today

What can socialists learn from the FLP experience? Perhaps the most important point is that it is possible to build a working-class party in the United States. Breaking up the two-party system is hard to do. But the Democratic Party is not an unsurpassable horizon, despite what liberals and many on the Left would have us believe. Though the US political regime poses serious obstacles to independent political action, the case of Minnesota shows they’re not inherently insurmountable. Pushing toward a new mass political formation, however difficult, remains far more realistic than the illusion of capturing a deliberately un-capturable, oligarchic party structure controlled by corporate America and its political adjuncts.

The FLP’s founding also illustrates the potential of what I call “dirty break” politics. Many leftists claim that every historical attempt to use the Democratic or Republican ballot line has ended in co-optation. Such claims turn out to be factually wrong. Though clean-breakers have played, and will continue to play, a major role in the fight for working-class independence, we’ve had a problematic tendency to minimize the particularities of the US political system, downplay the strategic importance of electoral politics in capitalist democracies, and underestimate the urgency of ending the socialist movement’s marginalization.

To be sure, a dirty break approach is fraught with its own dangers. In Minnesota, using a bourgeois ballot line subjected working people to intense integrative pressures. Over and over again, party apparatuses sought to wield both the carrot and the stick to derail internal electoral challengers. Without the intransigent leadership of Mahoney’s wing of the workers’ movement, Minnesota’s farmer-labor alliance would surely have been absorbed back into traditional lesser-evil politics.

This leads us to the crucial question: Can a dirty break strategy be effectively implemented again? It’s hard to say. The co-optation of the labor movement and the civil rights struggle in the 1930s and 1960s testifies to the Democratic Party’s much-increased ability to absorb opposition since the era of the FLP. And experiences in Minnesota and elsewhere suggest that mass workers’ organizations are the only social force strong enough to effectively overcome the pressures of the capitalist parties. Without the emergence of such a counterweight, today’s efforts to elect socialists will sooner or later succumb to Democratic Party business-as-usual.

On the other hand, it’s conceivable that experiments with dirty break tactics could help both to regenerate a fighting labor movement and restore an influential socialist Left. In Minnesota, the active intervention of William Mahoney and his comrades within the left-electoral insurgency was an indispensable factor in the implosion of the state’s two-party system. Whether organized socialists can play the same role today remains to be seen.