Letter: ISO’s Campaign for Nader

Recycled Browderism

5 May 2001

To the Editor:

In introducing James P. Cannon’s remarks on Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party presidential campaign (1917 No. 23), you quite accurately state: “Wallace’s campaign posed many of the same political issues for leftists as Ralph Nader’s recent presidential bid.” The arguments used by the ISO [International Socialist Organization] and other supposedly Marxist groups to justify voting for an openly capitalist third-party candidate echo those used a half century earlier by the Stalinists. I know, because in 1948, as a member of the Communist Party in California, I spent about 18 hours a day campaigning for Wallace’s slate in the run-up to the election.

The CP’s support to Wallace represented an apparent “left” turn from the previous election [1944] when they simply voted for FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] and the Democrats. In fact, it was a continuation of the policy of choosing among capitalist “lesser evils.” The CP’s overt support to the Democrats dated from the abandonment of the sectarian “Third Period” policy during FDR’s first term. Leading party cadres from that period told me that during the 1930s, three members of the Communist Party were elected to the California state legislature as Democrats. It was not public knowledge, although widely suspected.

The Stalinists in those days were far more sophisticated than the “Trotskyists” who are tailing the Greens today. Even at the height of the popular front, the CP maintained a pretense of political class independence, and ran its own candidate, Earl Browder, for president. The ISO’s attempt to act as the best builders of Nader and the Greens is only a cruder version of the same “tactic.”

In his autobiography, Steve Nelson, the CP cadre who had been political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, explained how nominal independence was combined with actual subordination to the Democrats:

“The fact that the Party [CP] continued to run its own candidates during the early New Deal may give the wrong impression of our attitude toward the Democratic Party. We supported pro-New Deal candidates and ran our own people largely for propaganda purposes....

“Earl Browder’s campaign that same year [1936] demonstrates how we ran our own candidates but still supported the New Deal. His motto and the whole tone of his campaign was ‘Defeat Landon [the Republican] at All Costs.’ In this way he sought to give critical support to FDR. We wanted to work with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and to achieve a certain amount of legitimacy as a party of the Left. We held a rally for Browder in the Wilkes-Barre [Pennsylvania] armory, which held over three thousand people, and the place was jammed. Many in the audience were rank and file Democrats. We didn’t get their votes on election day, but that’s not what counted to us. They were coming to recognize us as friends.

“For years there had been essentially no difference between Democrats and Republicans: both had represented the interests of the coal companies. Now there was a feeling that Roosevelt was doing something to relieve the problem of unemployment, and that signified a real change. People identified with the government as basically pro-labor. We had no illusions. The Democrats were still a capitalist party, but they were an alternative to the Republicans and were delivering the Wagner Act, Social Security, unemployment insurance, public works, and other badly needed reforms.”
—Steve Nelson: American Radical

I bought this line fifty-odd years ago. But James P. Cannon and the Trotskyists knew better. Probably the greatest crime of American Stalinism was undermining what had previously been a bedrock principle of the radical workers’ movement that, in the words of the 1905 preamble to the constitution of the Wobblies [Industrial Workers of the World]: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” The ISO and all the others who claim to stand in the Trotskyist tradition, while advocating votes to capitalist candidates at election time, are, in reality, standing in the class-collaborationist tradition of Browder’s Communist Party.

Howard Keylor

Published: 1917 No.24 (Feb 2002)