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Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party was the most successful labor party in United States history. Starting in 1918, it was a political federation of labor unions, not just a “labor friendly” political party. 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 in a rough decade. The Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia. The German Revolution had begun across one of the most advanced European countries. In November World War I formally ended. Here, Woodrow Wilson had signed into law the Sedition Act and used it to throw Eugene Debs in jail. Across the Midwest, as well as the nation, the Socialist Party had influence. 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 an industrial superpower. The way of life many had grown accustomed to was changing. Small businesses were getting destroyed by big monopolies. Men had been sent back to the lands they left to fight a war they had no interest in. Farmers were constantly haggling for decent crop prices. While State repression and internal conflict marginalized the influence of the Socialist Party, other class independent political formations arose. It is within this context we see the rise of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party.
As the name would suggest, the party was primarily a merger of rural farmers and urban workers. (There were also some small business owners involved who saw their support as a political protest against the power of the growing monopolies.) Although it is tempting to romanticize a time when all these social groups focused on their many similarities as opposed to their differences, this was most often not the case. There was tension from the beginning. The Republicans, the main establishment party in Minnesota, attempted to exploit this division. At this time, the party who claimed to be a “friend of labor” was the Republicans. Many of the early activists, from the Non-Partisan League to the Farmer-Labor Party, were at one time Republicans. The Democrats would often come in a distant third in the polls. With no fundamental ties to any organized group other than the wealthy, the two parties of capital can, and sometimes do, switch blocs 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 their widening success, culminating in neighboring North Dakota. The name was later changed to the “Farmer-Labor Association” and each main group, both farmer and labor, paid yearly dues.
In an informative analysis written in 1946, former Secretary of the Educational Bureau in the Farmer-Labor Association, Warren Creel, outlines the Association’s “Declaration of Principles:”
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.
It became a proper political party when it started running independent candidates against the two parties of capital. The Farmer-Labor Party was not alone. There were several other similar political movements across the nation. But what separated Minnesota was the fact that they had the official backing of the labor movement. The unions had, and even still have, the resources and structures to maintain an independent political presence.
Soon the Farmer-Labor Party started gaining seats in the state legislature. With this brought all sorts of contradictions. Opportunist politicians came running to Farmer-Labor when they smelled a possible career boost. They attempted to water down the program and, most of all, break the ties with labor.
The early foundational problems became more prominent. While the farmer and labor contingencies of the party worked well on basic issues, there proved to be disagreements on the overall strategy of the party.
Farmers generally argued for “middle of the road” tactics, which factored into the eventual demise of party. It was on the strength of the “Declaration of Principles” that Farmer-Labor candidates were elected and straying from that naturally turned off many of the most hardcore supporters. The main problem was the farmer section of the Association had far too much power. While it was founded with an equal farmer-labor alliance, many rural clubs had stopped paying dues and rarely participated in the internal political process. Unfortunately, due to a poor provision in the Association’s constitution, so long as farmers would show up on election day and vote, they kept their regional delegates. This made the farmers’ influence far greater than their day to day participation.
Despite these internal battles, Farmer-Labor came in second in the governor’s race every election cycle from 1918 until 1930. In 1930, within the context of the Great Depression, the first Farmer-Labor Administration was elected.
The biggest success was also the largest challenge for the integrity of the Farmer-Labor Party. The man elected governor was Floyd B. Olsen. Olsen was very popular across Minnesota. (There’s still a statue of him at the capitol building.) He was also controversial. From cries that he was a “socialist,” to alleged mob ties, to a well-known muckraker nemesis being shot down in the streets of Minneapolis, Floyd captivated Minnesota and gained national attention. He was a wonderful showman and a shrewd politician. In exchange for him running on a Farmer-Labor ticket, he demanded complete control over appointees. With the possibility of a victory in 1930 humming in their ears, the Farmer-Labor Association gave him that power.
In 1930 Olsen took office. He immediately set up committees outside of the Association consisting of careerist politicians that were loyal to him. His strategy was “vote for me, I’m a good guy”- typical of the personality politics we are all too familiar with. For years Floyd’s main goal was to limit labor’s influence within the party. He was never fully successful and was ultimately forced to recognize rank and file power, at least to an extent. (I suspect this was the main reason Olsen went after the reforms he is known for.)
Given Olsen’s maneuverings, it is not at all surprising contradictions were everywhere. For example, it was Olsen 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 the disruption of Floyd’s unexpected death from stomach 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 great margin in 1938. By 1944 the party had officially merged into the Democratic Party. (To this day the Democratic Party in Minnesota is known as the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.) The Stalinist elements within the party, who had been instrumental in bureaucratically shutting down any disagreeing voice from the unions, were at the forefront of the merger. (Stalin was now on good terms with Roosevelt. Moscow, despite the rhetoric, had absolutely no interest in democratic control, neither here nor there.)
The experience of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party gives us a context for independent openly socialist politicians like Kshama Sawant in Seattle. With both negative and positive results, this history is a great example of labor reaching beyond its membership to fight for issues that resonate with many people, increasing labor’s power in the process. (The fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage is an interesting current example.) Most of all, this history shows us the U.S. is not naturally a two-party country. It is possible to have our own left political presence, we need not simply rely on scraps from the Democratic Party’s table.
Graeme Anfinson lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota