Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party was the most successful labor party in United States history. Starting in 1918, it was a labor party in the true sense, not just a “pro-labor” party. It was a political federation of labor unions. The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association, a grouping of associated unions and farmers, provided the organic connection between labor and the party. Before the party merged with the Democrats in 1944, they had elected three governors, four U.S. Senators, and eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
1918 was a tumultuous year. The Bolshevik Revolution was being consolidated in Russia. Revolution had spread across Germany. In November, World War I formally ended. Here at home, Woodrow Wilson had signed the Sedition Act into law and used it to throw Eugene Debs into jail. Across the Midwest, as well as the nation, the Socialist Party had gained influence during Debs’ 1912 presidential campaign. The weekly publication Appeal to Reason had a circulation of one million. During this era, Wisconsin sent Socialist Party founding member Victor Berger to Congress. In Minneapolis, a Socialist Party candidate was elected mayor. The Non-Partisan League, a political organization started by Socialists, had gained the governor’s office in North Dakota.
This was also a time of great industrial expansion. America was becoming a world superpower. The way of life many had grown accustomed to was changing. Small businesses were being destroyed by big monopolies. Workers were being sent back to the lands they left to fight a war they had no interest in. Farmers were constantly fighting for a decent price for their crops. While state repression and internal conflict marginalized the influence of the Socialist Party, other class-independent political formations arose. It is within this context that we saw the rise of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party.
As the name would suggest, the party was a merger of rural farmers and urban workers. Many small business owners found a home within the party as well. Nationally, this was a time of many populist movements aimed at small business. There was Teddy Roosevelt and his independent run for President, aimed at cutting across the rise of the Socialist Party; the Populist Democrats; as well as various others. Due to their social existence, many of these farmers and small business owners had a different consciousness level than many of the workers. This created conflict from the beginning until the end of the FLP.
The Republicans, the main bourgeois party in Minnesota, attempted to exploit this division. At that time, the party that claimed to be a “friend of labor” was the Republicans. Many of the early supporters of the Non-Partisan League and the Farmer-Labor party were at one time Republicans. The Democrats would often come in a distant third in the polls. With no organic ties to any organized social layer other than the wealthy, the two parties of capital can, and often do, switch which bloc of voters they lean on for support. Now, as we well know, Republicans court the far right and Democrats masquerade as being pro-labor.
In 1918, during the Minnesota State Federation of Labor convention, Socialists called for a state labor political convention. This was indeed a bold move, as the Russian and German revolutions had left many within the American ruling class shaken to their foundation and not at all tolerant of political dissent. Nevertheless, the resolution passed. The formation was called the “Working People’s Political Non-Partisan League.” This was an obvious acknowledgement of the Non-Partisan League and its widening success, culminating in neighboring North Dakota. The name was later changed to the “Farmer-Labor Association” and each group, both farmer and labor, paid yearly dues.
In an excellent analysis written in 1946, former Secretary of the Educational Bureau in the Farmer-Labor Association, Warren Creel, outlines the Association’s “Declaration of Principals”:
“The Farmer-Labor movement seeks to unite into a political organization all persons engaged in agriculture and other useful industry, and those in sympathy with their interests, for the purpose of securing legislation that will protect and promote the economic welfare of the wealth producers.”
He went on to say: “It aims to rescue the government from the control of the privileged few and make it function for the use and benefit of all by abolishing monopoly in every form, and to establish in place thereof a system of public ownership and operation of monopolized industries, which will afford every able and willing worker an opportunity to work and will guarantee the enjoyment of the proceeds thereof, thus increasing the amount of available wealth, eradicating unemployment and destitution, and abolishing industrial autocracy.”
The FLP became a proper political party when it started running independent candidates against the two parties of capital. The MN Farmer-Labor Party was not alone. There were several other similar political movements around the nation. But what set the FLP Minnesota apart was the fact that it had the official backing of the labor movement. Only the unions had, and have today, the resources and structure to maintain an independent political presence and challenge the parties of Big Business. This is a huge lesson for us today and is the reason the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor calls for the unions to break their ties with the Democrats.
It wasn’t long before the Farmer-Labor Party started gaining seats in the state legislature. With this brought all sorts of contradictions. Petty bourgeois politicians, who came running to Farmer-Labor when they smelled a possible career boost, constantly attempted to water down its program and break the organic tie with labor and turn it into a typical bourgeois political party. Despite these internal battles, Farmer-Labor came in second in the governor’s race every election cycle from 1918 until 1930. In 1930, in the context of the Great Depression, the first Farmer-Labor administration was elected.
While the farmer and labor contingencies of the party worked well on immediate issues, there proved to be disagreements on the overall strategy of the party. Creel gives a first-hand view of the problems: “…The genuine farmers as well as pseudo-farmers--small town bankers and lawyers--were an influence for retreat from a working class orientation. When the movement was taking shape there were sharp battles over opportunist steps, such as the nomination of Henrik Shipstead for U.S. Senator in 1922. The farmers, of course, considered themselves as holding the party on the correct middle of the road.”
These “middle of the road” tactics ultimately lead to the demise of party. It was on the strength of the “Declaration of Principals” that Farmer-Labor candidates were elected, and straying from that turned out to be a death blow. The main problem was that the farmer section of the Association had power and influence within the party far out of proportion to its real, active membership. While it was founded as an equal farmer-labor alliance, many rural clubs had stopped paying dues and did not at all participate in the internal political process. Unfortunately, due to a poor provision in the Association’s constitution, so long as farmers or other club members showed up on election day to vote, they kept their regional delegates. In other words, a club of 40 members could have as much voting power as a union local with 400 members.
As for the labor section, Creel had this to say: “The labor section was basically a political federation of labor unions, a genuine labor party organization. It had in operation the elementary machinery that is necessary for real working class politics. Political activity started in the affiliated labor union locals, where political discussion, reports of political delegates, and political campaign activity were part of the regular business of each meeting, and payment of per-capita to the labor political organization was a constant part of the budget. Delegates from the unions of each city met in monthly meetings or oftener, as the Farmer-Labor Association city central committee. This went on month after month and year after year.”
One lesson to be drawn from the experience of the FLP is that the Labor component of any such party must be represented in proportion to the number of workers in the affiliated unions. Only by maintaining these direct, organic ties to the working class, can the party effectively struggle against the influence of alien classes and careerist bureaucrats.
Despite being its most famous and successful leader, the biggest challenge for the integrity of the Farmer-Labor Party came from Gov. Floyd B. Olson. Olson was a popular man across Minnesota. He was also controversial. From accusations that he was a “socialist,” to alleged mob ties, to a well known muckraker nemesis being shot down in the streets of Minneapolis, Olson captivated Minnesota and gained national attention. He was a wonderful showman and a shrewd politician. But in exchange for him running on a Farmer-Labor ticket, he demanded complete control over any administration appointees. With the very real possibility of a victory in 1930 humming in their ears, the Farmer-Labor Association gave him that power.
In 1930, Olson was indeed elected. He immediately set up committees outside of the Association consisting of careerist politicians who were loyal to him. His approach was: “vote for me, I’m a good guy!” The program of the party be damned! For years, Olson’s main goal was to limit labor’s influence within the party. As many state jobs as he could possibly give out, he gave out to supporters. Despite his attempted undermining of labor’s direct influence, he was forced to recognize its power. Although he did in fact implement many progressive and truly pro-labor reforms, this may have been more due to cold political calculation, rather than a heartfelt desire to “help the working man.”
Given Olson’s maneuvering, it is not at all surprising that contradictions were everywhere. For example, it was Olson who ordered the National Guard to Minneapolis during the famous 1934 Teamster Strike. Some unions, particularly and understandably in the Twin Cities, openly opposed him. The downward spiral of the party was heightened by Floyd’s unexpected death from cancer in 1936.
From then on, the party was in ruins. Despite still having a tremendous support based on their earlier program, the party was ousted from the governor’s mansion by a big margin in 1938. By 1944, the party had officially merged into the Democratic Party. The Stalinists from the Communist Party, who had been instrumental in bureaucratically shutting down any dissenting voice in the unions, had now successfully merged the workers’ party into a bourgeois party. Stalin was on good terms with Roosevelt, and Moscow--despite the rhetoric--had absolutely no interest in a true workers’ party, either here or in the USSR.
There are many lessons we can learn from the experience of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party. First of all, it shatters the myth that workers in the U.S. have no interest in political independence. In the final analysis, workers in the United States have the same needs, wants, and aspirations as workers in Venezuela, Egypt, Russia, or Germany, and need a political party to fight in their interests. But it also shows the limitations of a reformist policy. If you do not seek to fundamentally change society and fight for genuine socialism, then there is not much that can be done to manage capitalism in crisis, and the old parties and old problems will eventually return.
This is why we are involved in the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor. As Marxists, we understand that it would prove a costly mistake not to be part of the process of building a genuine mass political alternative for U.S. workers. Because when the mighty American working class moves to create its own political party, the world ruling class will tremble.