The Socialist Party and the Old RightBy J. Arthur Bloom for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
A slightly edited version of this talk was delivered at a forum at the National Press Club on April 9, 2015, entitled “American Socialism Reconsidered,” on the occasion of Jack Ross’s new history of the Socialist Party. Video of the event is not yet online but it will appear here when it is. I am indebted to Justus Doenecke, Joseph Stromberg, and Bill Kauffman for their assistance in pointing me to sources, many of which they authored.
Greetings. As the token conservative on the panel, I intend to get to what the Socialist Party has to say to us, but I’d like to begin, true to form, by complaining about the liberal media.
In September of last year, the New Republic released a 100th anniversary anthology with a more insurgent title than the magazine has ever earned, called “Insurrections of the Mind,” curated by their recently deposed editor Franklin Foer. In it he offers a succinct summation of what one might call Crolyism for the 21st Century: “the marriage of welfare statism and civil liberties is essentially the definition of American liberalism.”
In the Baffler this month, the estimable left-wing writer George Scialabba corrected him, noting the marriage in question “has actually been a love triangle,” with interventionist foreign policy as the third leg.
As the New Republic and its counterpart the Nation go through their anniversary retrospections, one in its 101st year and the other in its 150th, both have published long essays taking stock of their past. In the New Republic’s case, we might have hoped for a critical reevaluation of its mostly unbroken century of interventionism, before both World Wars right up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Instead, what we have is an extended mea culpa of a cover story about the magazine’s support for welfare reform and its failure to hire a diverse enough staff. Whatever the merits of this newfound sensitivity, to focus on that to the exclusion of the magazine’s militarism seems like a cop-out. In 2015, to diversify a magazine will earn you plaudits from all corners of respectable society. To question war and empire, on the other hand, usually means sacrificing one’s reputation.
DD Guttenplan, the London correspondent of The Nation, hints at this in his multi-part history of the magazine in its 150th anniversary issue, writing, “Pearl Harbor … put the seal on something The Nation hadn’t had in a long time: respectability.”
Guttenplan’s article credits Oswald Garrison Villard, the broadly libertarian editor from 1918 to 1932, and grandson of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, with radicalizing the magazine and allowing for vigorous debate. But he doesn’t mention that Villard cut ties with the magazine in 1940 after having his pay reduced, over its support for rearmament. His history also doesn’t mention that Freda Kirchwey, Villard’s successor, was an apologist for Stalin’s show trials, which may have indicated something about her reasons for supporting war.
Villard’s departure is mentioned elsewhere in the issue, but this time he doesn’t appear as a broad-minded radical who dragged the Nation to the left in the interwar years, but as a Benedict Arnold who sold out to the right. Though Villard’s pacifist views never changed, he is guilty by association, having been written about by ex-leftist Ron Radosh in his book Prophets on the Right. However, with all due respect to Mr. Radosh, of his five prophets, the only one who is unambiguously on the right at all is Robert Taft.
Rectifying names and labels is a thankless and dubiously productive task, but the important insight here, which Jack advances in his book, is that Villard and many like him did not so much abandon the left during the Popular Front era as the left left them, becoming increasingly moderate, militaristic, and statist in its embrace of the Roosevelt administration. In a loose sense, the two magazines represent the larger dynamic in the pro-intervention coalition, of liberal Democrats and communist sympathizers, both of which supported the New Deal and interventionist foreign policy. “Two pinions of an ancient bird of prey,” to borrow Walter Karp’s evocative phrase.
Tonight I’m supposed to offer some more detail about the people who were on the outs of this alliance, the pro-peace, anti-New Deal coalition that emerged in the Popular Front era, which drew together socialists and the collection of writers, politicians, and thinkers we now know as the Old Right.
Jack has already touched on the pro-communist narrative through which most of this history has been filtered in the popular telling, by which the left-wing critics of the New Deal have been occluded. A good representation of this position can be found in a statement adopted by the Socialist Party at its convention in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1938. If you don’t mind I’ll quote it from Jack’s book:
The Communist Party has become one of the best organized and most determined opponents of independent political action by labor … Because the New Deal is tied to the defense of capitalism and capitalism breeds war, the New Deal has become a streamlined instrument for war preparations. The New Deal and the Communist Party are both attempting to strengthen the war machine. Both seek to create the greatest possible unity in the nation in the face of war—unity in support of that war. This gives additional impetus to the drive against a Labor Party since such a party would encourage an independent expression of the workers on the question of war.
This certainly sounds like a more radical point of view than what was on offer by the Popular Front. And it is, but the categories of right and left are of questionable use to us during this period. Charles Lindbergh, for example, generally considered to be a reactionary populist, was the son of a Minnesota congressman who staunchly opposed intervention in World War I and was dubbed the “Gopher bolshevik” by the New York Times. As early as 1933, Norman Thomas criticized certain parts of the New Deal, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which mandated crops be destroyed that might otherwise have fed starving people. One could also point to FDR’s letter to Thomas in 1944, in which he wrote, “I was amused during the campaign to think that now I am very far to the left of you.”
Roosevelt was flattering himself, but he gestured at an important idea. If war was the glue that kept the communists and liberal Democrats together, the isolationist coalition shared a conservative affinity for republican institutions and the threat posed to them by centralized power and empire. It was on this basis that the agrarian populists, Northeastern patricians, suffragettes, disillusioned New Dealers, literary figures, and midwestern industrialists that formed the America First Committee were able to find a common language.
The received history of the America First movement is that it was a collection of reactionary malcontents with a moral blindness to fascism, which is to say, we think roughly what FDR wanted us to think about them. As isolationist historian Wayne Cole wrote, FDR portrayed his opponents as “narrow, self-serving, partisan, conservative, antidemocratic, anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, fifth-columnist, and even treasonous.”
But almost uniformly, on both its left and right wings, the isolationist coalition feared that war would lead to fascism at home, an idea voiced most famously by John T. Flynn, an arch-liberal who has the distinction of being forced out of both the New Republic and National Review for his pro-peace views. Flynn is something of a bridge between the left and right-wing isolationists, in charge of the New York chapter of America First and also serving as chairman of the Keep America Out of War Congress, a more radical organization founded by Norman Thomas which had as its first chairman former Nation editor Oswald Garrison Villard.
The 1940 platform of the Socialist Party put the dangers of war in the same terms as Flynn, stating:
defeat of Hitler will mean the defeat of Hitlerism and a victory for democracy only if the roots of fascism and the war system are destroyed. The United States cannot contribute toward that end nor vindicate real democracy if it loses itself in the processes of war. If America enters the war, we shall be subjected to military dictatorship, the regimentation of labor and the ultimate economic collapse that must follow war. In an effort to “save democracy,” we shall have destroyed its only remaining citadel.
Between the Socialist Party and the Old Right lies a whole spectrum of broadly liberal republican — with a small r — opinion. One of the interesting figures along it is the first female member of Congress, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, who has the honor of being the only person to vote against both world wars, having served another non-consecutive term ending in 1918. Rankin’s second candidacy in 1940 was endorsed by Norman Thomas, and the affection was mutual; she confessed later in life that her favorite presidential candidate had been Thomas. Though she never joined America First, she endorsed many of its principles in speeches on the floor of Congress.
Among the other high profile supporters of America First was Senator Burton K Wheeler, also of Montana but a Democrat, who broke with the administration over FDR’s court-packing plan in 1937. Wheeler shared a stage with Norman Thomas and North Dakota Republican Senator Gerald Nye at a rally in New York on February 20, 1940, co-sponsored by the Keep America Out of War Congress and the America First Committee. One of his biggest supporters when he turned against FDR was New York Daily News publisher Joseph Medill Patterson, who helped run Eugene Debs’ 1908 campaign.
For his independent-mindedness, Wheeler went on to star as the opportunistic vice president under Charles Lindbergh in Philip Roth’s alternative history of World War II under the evil isolationists.
The title of Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, is borrowed from a Marxist tract published in 1946 that slandered Wheeler and likened Harry Truman to Hitler. At one point in Roth’s book the fictional Wheeler declares martial law, though the real man was always a supporter of civil liberties and against militarism. Such is the power of the pro-communist narrative, that any skepticism of war is a sign of sympathy for fascism, and every isolationist is a crypto-Nazi. The most rabid enforcers of this ideological elision were members of the Communist Party, whose members actively called for the repression of dissenters.
There are echoes of this line in criticism of today’s libertarians, such as an ad that ran last year against Michigan Congressman Justin Amash calling him, “Al Qaeda’s best friend in Congress.” Then as now, the elision works primarily to the benefit of Pentagon functionaries and warmongering editors.
It is not a coincidence that the smears used against libertarians today are the same ones used against the noninterventionists of old. A burgeoning libertarian movement turned to these historical resources when their erstwhile conservative allies became more preoccupied with fighting communism abroad than preserving liberty at home. Historians like Ralph Raico and Leonard Liggio, while directly in the tradition of the old right, also saw merit in the old progressives, recognizing in their opposition to monopoly capitalism a hostility to government privilege.
Returning to Foer’s definition of liberalism, it was clear to the Old Right that civil liberty and a centralized welfare state were in some sense opposed to one another. If you have doubts about that, it seems even clearer in an age of perpetual war and government spying, that interventionism, Scialabba’s addendum, also cannot coexist forever with civil liberty. Eventually, the demands of militarism overwhelm all other concerns.
Senator Lindsey Graham recently suggested that, should Congress fail to undo cuts to the Pentagon budget, the army should keep them in session until they do. Here is a man with such contempt for the body he serves in that he welcomes it being robbed at gunpoint, to pay for a military presence from Paraguay to Dar-es-Salaam. It is a testament to the atrophy of America’s republican reflexes that the senator can say such things without being tarred, feathered, and summarily cashiered by the good people of South Carolina.
We may be grateful, therefore, that if the top nine GOP presidential contenders were to take the field at a baseball game, Senator Graham would remain firmly on the bench. But he is going through the motions of a presidential run anyway, supported by a political action committee whose name at least has the virtue of honesty — Security through Strength, an admission that Reagan’s slogan of strength leading to peace is a check that, in a time of perpetual, global war, we will be waiting until the end of time to cash.
It is in this context that Jack’s book amounts to an act of cultural recovery. What is remarkable about his subject is not just that the Socialist Party stood for the working man, or even that they were anti-war. It is a basic faith in the goodness of the American people. As many others looked to militancy or bureaucratic rule, what distinguishes them is a stubborn belief that self-government was still possible. Oscar Ameringer, the German-American Socialist organizer wrote the following in his 1940 autobiography, which contains a forward by the poet Carl Sandburg:
Nowhere and at no earlier time in all the history of the race have men suffered widespread want because there is abundance for all. This exclusive, new, and strictly American problem can neither be solved by theories spun in the Manchester or London of the long ago, nor by the new shibboleths and slogans emanating from the sick-beds of Europe. It can only be solved in America, in the American way of practical thinking, the ballot box, and a genuine love of country. We Americans must solve it.
Pundits love to talk about the libertarian moment we’re living in, supposedly demonstrated by polling that suggests Americans are socially liberal but frugal and concerned about civil liberty. According to polling by Reason in February, college-aged Americans are marginally more favorable to socialism than capitalism when asked to choose, though they favor a free market system to a government managed economy by a fairly large margin. The pollster suggests that perhaps these young people just don’t know what they’re talking about, and that’s certainly possible, but is there more to it than that? Could it be that they’re looking for something, not quite libertarian, that isn’t being spoken to by either the left or the right?
I’d like to close with a final anecdote about one of my favorite libertarian women, Vivian Kellems, founder of a cable grip company who courageously fought income tax withholding, saying if the government wanted to turn her into a tax collector, they “have to pay me, and I want a badge.” In 1950 this quintessential capitalist ran for senate in Connecticut, sharing an independent ticket with the Socialist mayor of Bridgeport, Jasper McLevy. When asked about the contradiction, she replied:
The Connecticut Socialist Party is far to the right of both the Republican and Democratic Parties. . … I am no Socialist, I am an American. Jasper McLevy is also an American, a truly great one. He and I stand for the same things – direct primaries, economy in government, lower taxes, and an active political role for women.
65 years later, we are still ruled by the same duocracy Kellems and McLevy put aside their differences to oppose, and next year we will in all likelihood face another non-choice between two big-government, pro-war candidates. Jack’s book is, among other things, a look back into the days when a republican alternative was not a formless nostalgia, but a living tradition which gave the war party a run for their money, and may even have prevailed had history not intervened. Today the same tradition lies abused and neglected, a frame without flesh. It falls to the next generation, God willing, to make those old bones stand and walk again.
Update: It was Lindbergh’s father, not the pilot, who received that nickname from the New York Times. I regret the error.