Vanguard or Tail-End? The experience of the Liberal Party

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 11:41

The Liberal Party of New York is a unique type of political organization. Nothing like it exists anywhere else in the United States.

Despite this uniqueness, an understanding of the Liberal Party can be very helpful to anyone who wants to understand American labor politics at mid-century, precisely because this party exhibits in a striking and harshly developed form many of the characteristics and trends which exist in the rest of the field of labor politics in a less clear-cut way.

The Liberal Party is and has been since its inception a bundle of paradoxes and contradictions. It is a party based on labor which hotly denies that it is a labor party.

It is a party, furthermore, which represents only one section of the New York labor movement and is treated at best with coolness and usually with hostility by the rest of the labor movement.

It is an organizationally independent patty which seeks at most elections to transform Itself into an adjunct of the Democratic Party, and even when it is rebuffed and forced to run its own candidates, tries to disguise itself and its role as much as possible from the public.

It is a party which seeks to recruit members and activists on the basis of claims to its independence, incorruptibility and forward-looking, principled program; but when election-time rolls around, seeks to ram down the throats of these same members and activists one political deal with the Democrats after another, winks at the corruption of its ally, and tends to forget its program until after the election is safely past.


How has the Liberal Party managed to survive, much less to function all these years, in view of the fact that it is a sort of half-labor half-party? The answer is that it could only have survived this long because it has expressed in its own way the undecided, tension-ridden political position of American labor as a whole, and beyond that because it has expressed it in the peculiar political surroundings of New York.

The Liberal Party was originally created for the purpose of corralling the large radical and independent vote in New York for New Deal Democratic candidates. It was created by a section of the labor movement (the leaders of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the United Hat, Cap and Millinery Workers) with an old socialist tradition which had adapted itself in the main to the political philosophy of the American labor movement, but which sought an instrument through which to express and at the same time control the radical and independent sentiments and aspirations of the most advanced political-public in the country.

It is, on the one hand, a vestige of the socialist training and tradition of the older stratum of the radical wing of New York labor, and on the other an attempt to find a road to the independent political influence, action and power of the American labor movement of tomorrow.


Some examples of the twists and turns of Liberal Party politics during the past seven-years may be the-best way of illustrating haw the Liberal Party leadership has attempted to meet the dual pressures upon it: the -demand of Its active membership for more independence, and the acceptance by most of the membership and certainly by the leadership of its role as an adjunct of the Democratic Party.

In 1949 there was a New York City mayoralty campaign. The Democrats (backed by the bulk of the AFL and CIO) ran the incumbent Mayor O'Dwyer for re-election. The Liberal Party supported Newbold Morris in a coalition with the Republicans on a "clean government" basis.

Within one short year, the picture had changed completely. O'Dwyer resigned amid a big political stink. A Democratic hack, Impellitteri, ran as an Independent against the machine. The machine, in an effort to recover from the O'Dwyer scandal, nominated Judge Ferdinand Pecora for mayor, and the Liberals supported him.

Why? Because there was a gubernatorial campaign that year, and a senatorial one to boot. In their desire to re- elect Senator Lehman and to defeat the Dewey machine on a state level, the LP leadership decided to back the Democratic slate up and down the line.

The result: Impellitteri won a smashing victory against the New York Democratic machine, Lehman won handily, and for months the leadership had to explain to the membership why it had been necessary for them to exert themselves on behalf of a couple of party hacks like Pecora and Walter Lynch, the Democratic candidate for governor.


In 1951 the Liberal Party reached the peak of its prestige. Since there was no national or state campaign that year, the pressure of the ranks for an independent candidacy in the election for president of the City Council became overwhelming. The LP ran Rudolph Halley against candidates of both the Democrats and Republicans, and elected him in a smashing victory.

But in this campaign, as in all others, the party exhibited a marked reticence about appearing before the voters under its own name. It sought to set up an additional party in the hope of winning independent Republican votes, and won almost none. It permitted Halley to run his campaign on a straight anti-crime, anti-corruption basis, and put its city program in mothballs for the duration.

Nevertheless, the ranks and the leadership felt enormously encouraged by their success. It had been demonstrated that in certain circumstances the Liberal Party could be the strongest party in the city.


In 1952 the party leadership made a frantic attempt to use their new-found prestige to induce the Democrats to run acceptable candidates for major posts. Needless to say, on a national level they supported the Stevenson-Sparkman ticket. But the Democrats refused to nominate a liberal Democrat (like Harriman) for the Senate, and with obvious reluctance the LP leadership nominated their own candidate George S. Counts for the post.

He ran against liberal-Republican Ives and Democratic hack Cashmore and gained a whopping 485,000 votes on the Liberal Party line in the midst of the Eisenhower landslide. At the same time Stevenson got 410,000 votes on the Liberal line as compared to 220,000 for Truman in 1948.

Here again, a measure of independence, forced on a reluctant LP leadership, had paid off. In this campaign, again, the leadership had gone all-out for Stevenson, and had done very little to promote the Counts campaign. It was clear that a large number of voters want an independent party, and will show it whenever they are given half a chance.


In 1953 the New York City mayoralty campaign was again divorced from state and national campaigns. Early in the year, both Democratic and Republican Parties showed great division and uncertainty with regard to their candidates. After a long series of negotiations with both, the LP leadership found itself unable to make a satisfactory deal, decided to yield to the practically irresistible pressure from the ranks, and ran Halley again. The Democratic machine was thrown into panic by the prospect of losing City Hall outright, and got behind a reliable organization liberal, Robert Wagner Jr.

The campaign again showed the basic strength of the sentiment for independent politics in New York City. The LP got 468,000 votes while the Republicans, flushed with national victory, got 661,000, and Wagner was swept into office with over a million votes.

No campaign showed more clearly the distance between the LP and the rest of the labor-liberal movement in America than the campaign of 1963. Wagner was backed not only by both the AFL and CIO councils in the city, but by a whole galaxy of top national liberals from Mrs. Roosevelt up and down the line. Their cry was for party regularity, for sup- port to the Democratic Party as such.

Instead of reacting forthrightly and militarily to this challenge, the LP leadership sought to win by clever maneuver. Once again the campaign concentrated on "clean government" issues and virtually ignored the big economic and social problems of the city. Once again the LP sought to evade the challenge that it was ran by "labor bosses" by effacing itself during the campaign and disappearing into a series of "independents for Halley" organisations, with the idea that this was the way to lure independent votes into the fold.


The defeat of Halley for mayor seemed to take the starch out of the Liberal Party leadership. In 1964 they endorsed the whole Democratic slate in advance in exchange for the measly plum of Democratic endorsement for one Liberal for municipal judge.

Rumors flew thick and fast to the effect that the party was going to be dissolved. David Dubinsky, head of the ILGWU, openly speculated on whether the party should continue to exist, and informed it that it would have to count less heavily on the ILGWU for financial support than in the past.

The result was that Harriman, though elected governor, polled only 264,000 votes on the Liberal line . . . less than the unknown and defeated Lynch four years earlier.

In 1955 the LP annual dinner was dominated by Democratic dignitaries. Harriman and Wagner sat on the dais, along with De Sapio, the leader of Tammany Hall! Adolph Berle, state chairman of the party during the preceding years, resigned without bothering to wait till a successor had been found.

And it appears, at the present writing, that in 1956 the LP will just go through the motions while supporting Democrats at every level.


Flushed with the Halley victory in 1951, Alex Rose, a Liberal Party leader and president of the hat workers union, had written in his union's paper:

"The heads of central labor bodies across the land still play the game the old way, by way of promises of 'favors' from local bosses, by personal maneuvering with old-line politicians. They show no confidence in their own latent strength. They are either too lazy or too uncomprehending to assert the political power of their membership. With tragic consequences to the best interests of labor . . . they fail to mobilize all of labor's political potentialities."

The sad fact is that Rose and his colleagues in the leadership of the LP also “play the game the old way," though on a higher level than the men he condemned in the above paragraph.

They are not interested in the "personal" deals and maneuvers with old-line politicians in the narrow sense of the word "personal." But their whole method of politics is to seek to organize a mass base for the purpose of being able to exert pressure on the "old-line politicians," not for the purpose of winning elections and taking over the city and state governments.

Though they bemoan their isolation in New York, and tend to blame some of worst deals they have been forced to make on the fact that the rest of the American labor movement has failed to follow their example, they have not raised their voices in the national councils of labor to demand that the Liberal Party be extended nationally, or that a new party be formed into which it would be incorporated.


As a matter of fact, it is clear that the particular brand of politics of the Liberal Party can only continue to exist as long there is a real political hanger for an independent, honest party of the common people which is never satisfied. But while it feeds on this hunger, the LP leaders’ brand of politics often tends to demoralise it rather than to satisfy it.

As year after year the ranks have to accept the leaders' stories of "great victories" won behind closed doors; as year after year they are compelled to support candidates whom they had previously opposed, or vice versa, they either turn into political cynics or leave politics altogether. There is a large turnover in the active membership, and a tendency for the old cadres to become bored, indifferent and inactive.

In addition, the LP leadership is now confronted with the fact of a united movement. That unity is bound to have consequences in the political functioning of the labor movement in America goes without saying.

To the extent that the LP is a unique maverick political animal, there will be pressure to kill it off and coordinate the politics of the unions which have been the backbone of the LP with those of the rest of the movement. Thus we may find that all the paradoxes and contradictions which have wracked the LP from its inception may be capped by the biggest and most ironical paradox of all: that the party fades just on the eve of the political realignment in America which it had so long awaited.

Fortunately, the LP is not foredoomed by any iron law of history to continue to waste away on the diet of crumbs from other parties' tables to which its leadership has confined it for so long. For in addition to this leadership, which is pretty well frozen in its hard-bitten, dogmatic theory of maneuverism, there has always been a sizable and healthy section of the rank and file which has pushed for a truly independent role for the Liberal Party."


They are convinced that the LP can actually win elections if it goes to the voters in its own name, with its own candidates, and advocates its own program during elections as well as in its educational literature.

And they understand that even if the party should fail at first to win as a really independent political movement, the tactic of running its own slate would put far more pressure on the other two parties to match it with good candidates of their own than has been the case when the LP has maneuvered for an acceptable candidate at the top of the ticket, and in return for this great boon from the Democrats, has agreed to support almost any machine hack they might run for all the offices lower down.

The pressures in American society which have brought about the unity of the labor movement are working inexorably to bring about a general political realignment also. By the very fact of its existence as a separate political party, the LP has been able to exercise more pressure on the Democrats in New York than has the labor movement in any other part of the country.

Though its successes have been minimized by the timid tactics of its leadership, once new political winds begin to blow the example of the Liberal Party will not go unnoticed by the militants in the rest of the labor movement throughout the country.

There is no denying the fact that the LP militants who are for an independent policy for the party have been wearied and in part demoralized by the tactics of their leaders. But the worst thing they could do now would be to give up the good fight.

Even though they have not yet succeeded in getting their party in any consistent way to play the inspiring role of which it is capable, their efforts have not been in vain. Compared to the political role of the bulk of the labor movement and the liberals in the country, theirs has been a noble one. And it may well be that the day is not far off when they will be able to set a real example, to spread the idea of truly independent labor politics far beyond the borders of New York.

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