“The traditional two-party system in the United States has been very well suited for normal times. The ruling capitalists couldn’t ask for anything better than this (…). [But] The aggravation of the crisis which we all see ahead can shake up the whole American political situation (…)”.
By Daniel Solon.
Through the news and social networks we follow the presidential pre-election campaign in the United States. As we are used to only two parties have visibility in the media, which treat the subject as a true spectacle. However, there is a little novelty in the air. The rise in popularity of the favorite of the North American extreme right wing, the businessman Donald Trump (Republican Party), and among the Democrats, the strong campaign of Bernie Sanders, who calls himself “socialist” without having a clearly anti-capitalist profile, end up making the electoral process in the United States more peculiar and attractive. The enthusiasm of a large part of the world’s left wing, regarding the recent events of the almighty US electoral terrain, is not little.
In fact, we do not even know for sure if Trump and/or Sanders will be even the representatives of the largest US capitalist parties in the presidential race itself. Within the “normality” of what it is to observe the recurrent false polarization, Republicans vs. Democrats, still there are far distant perspectives for a presidential campaign with the presence of a revolutionary party with a clearly classist and socialist program for the working class and North American youth. This electoral alternative does not really exist in the US today. However, it was in that same country, in the 1940s, where the main pioneers of the left militancy, of the Trotskyite tradition, had their first political experiences, bold and innovative, in the electoral field. The Trotskyite campaigns in the presidential elections of 1948, 1952 and 1956 in the US are a true inspiration. Let’s take a look.
The SWP of the time, the Socialist Workers Party, was the revolutionary organization, of Trotskyism nature, that made the first electoral experiences in the United States in this global trend. The SWP was the largest and strongest section of the Fourth International in the 40s, and it had the careful and attentive accompanying of Leon Trotsky, even before it was legalized. The Fourth International was the world’s political alternative created by Trotsky together with other revolutionaries from different countries. It was in contraposition to the Third International, which was politically degenerated due to the Stalinist bureaucratization. Formalized in 1938, and strongly rooted in US workers’ groups, the SWP began to dispute the election campaign in the US only 10 years after its legalization.
It was Farrell Dobbs, one of the powerful leaders of the Minneapolis’ truckers’ strike, who had the task of being the first candidate, for President of the United States, of a Trotskyist trend in 1948. The successful strike of 1934, which shook the country, gave great visibility to the American Trotskyists who were isolated for years and who suffered the slandered policy of the Stalinists of the Communist Party. From this organization would come the cadres for the future construction of the Fourth, emphasized by J. P. Cannon, the most important Trotskyist leader in the US:
“The important thing to remember is that our modern Trotskyist movement originated in the Communist Party—and nowhere else. Despite all the negative aspects of the party in those early years…despite its weaknesses, its crudities, its infantile sicknesses, its mistakes; whatever may be said in retrospect about the faction struggles and their eventual degeneration; whatever may be said about the degeneration of the Communist Party in this country (…)”.
The vice-presidential candidate of Farrell Dobbs was Grace Carlson. She moved from academia to militancy in the SWP with the collective protests movements of blacks and immigrants. The history of candidates reinforced the subversive and anti-systemic character of the SWP campaign. In addition to being recognized fighters, Farrell Dobbs and Grace Carlson, the 31st of December 1943, began serving a sentence of one year and four months in prison along with 16 comrades of the SWP, including the leader J. Cannon, and union leaders from the Union of Truckers- Minneapolis. The crime of 18? They actively campaigned against US participation in World War II. This stance was framed as a conspiracy against the government, according to the “Smith Act,” a law which was often used to crack down and try to intimidate leftist activists. In the complaint to the World War, the SWP argued that it was an imperialist war “for profit” and not for “freedom,” “democracy,” and/or “against fascism” as stated by the government.
Figure 1: brochure cover containing the speeches of the SWP candidates for the US presidency in 1948.
In the following election campaigns (1952, 1956 and 1960), Farrell had as a vice-presidential candidate the activist Myra Tanner Weiss. She was linked to the struggles of the North American working class and to the defence of immigrants (Mexicans, Japanese, etc.) against racism and anti-Semitism.
How was the SWP presented in bourgeois elections, in the largest and strongest capitalist country in the world? The speeches (Figure 1) of the 1948’s campaign aired on the national network, the strongest means of mass communication so far, showed a SWP aware of the major national and international issues. They were hard-hitting radio programs denunciating North American imperialism, critical of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR, and in defence of a socialist government program for the claims of the working class.
The emphasis on the struggle of the black people, who were extremely humiliated, at that time, and regarded as second class citizens, showed that the debate of the SWP with Trotsky on that subject had been effective. The Black candidates for the Congress, like William E. Bohannan, sought to directly dialogue with the most exploited ethnic sector of the working class, through booklets such as “A letter to American Negroes.” (Figure 2). This brought the class question and the need of a unified struggle against oppression and for socialism into debate. Bohannan was a member of NAACP, «National Association for Advancing of Colored People» which was an important organization of the struggle for civil rights and against racial segregation. It warned that rights are not given but gained. The manifesto also fought the pressure and demands of the so-called “useful vote:
“There are those who will tell you that voting for the Socialist Workers Party is wasting your vote because the SWP cannot possibly win in 1948. Such an argument is false to the core. The way to waste your vote is by giving it to a candidate who is openly or secretly a friend of the Jim Crow system, whether he can win or not. The way to use your vote most effectively is to cast it for the candidate who stands for the program you want to see put in action, whether he can win this time or not”.
Figure 2- A letter to American Negroes, p.14
It should be noted that in addition to the document quoted in previous years, the SWP published other materials focusing on the fight against the oppression of the black people. Publications like «A Practical Program To Kill Jim Crow» (Figures 3 and 4), of Charles Jackson, and «Vigilante Terror in Fontana” (Figure 5), signed by Myra Weiss , were part of the SWP ‘s arsenal to denounce the racism of the state against black people and the racist violence committed daily in the country. They also attracted black men and women workers to self- organization within the revolutionary party.
Figure 3- SWP booklet cover calling the unitary struggle of the workers against racist oppression and capitalism.
Figure 4- At the end of page 13 reads: “Understanding only a small minority of people, the capitalist rulers, in order to save their own skins, want to keep workers constantly fighting each other, the publication of the SWP.
Note, in the illustration, the capitalist dissatisfied with the unity of black and white workers.
Figure 5- SWP publication denounces murder of a family- victim of a racist group in 1946.
The US newspaper The Militant (Figure 6), weekly newsletter of the SWP, was the main political weapon of the revolutionary party and it strengthened the role of the Trotskyists in times of electoral dispute. Far from being a topic discussed only in the electoral calendar, the black question had fixed space on The Militant issues. The column “The Negro Struggle” addressed racist oppression in different aspects (wages, prejudice, police harassment, the segregationist legislation “Jim Crow” that separated places for whites and “coloured people”) and it highlighted the need to unite black and white workers in mass actions against the growing racist violence and the need for socialism.
Figure 6- Cover: electoral platform of the SWP in 1952; workers’ unity against racism, union strike balance; charge critique of bourgeois candidates; critique of Stalinism.
Along with the defence of civil rights, a highlighted topic during the 1952 campaign was the denunciation of a police state installation process in the US with several attacks on democratic rights at the time of the “Witch Hunt ” and against war. There was a great fear of the new world conflict, which this time involved China and the USSR.
Obviously, the SWP Trotskyists suffered various consequences (layoffs, police investigations, intimidation, police repression, prisons, all these in the “world’s largest democracy”) due to their priority agitation and propagandistic actions with the labour sector and their ongoing struggles. Their actions were not only in elections, which are a merely tactical issue to Trotskyism. Casualties occurred among the major public figures of the party, which reinforced the SWP’s policy to continue denouncing the growing democratic restrictions in the country. Grace Carlson, for example, who was the SWP candidate for vice president in 1948 – and who had already accepted the task again for the 1952 campaign – broke with the party, just before the official list, claiming ideological conflicts of the Trotskyist organization and the Catholic Church.
Grace Carlson’s decision seems to have taken the militants by surprise including the main leaders. James P. Cannon, General Secretary of the SWP at the time, used a space in The Militant to write about “How we won Grace Carlson and how we lost her.” The article made clear that material problems had great weight as well as Grace’s personal religious issues. After 16 years of intense and honest militancy that took her from a comfortable financial framework to a situation of difficulty finding a job, Grace Carlson gave in to the McCarty’s persecutions:
“Grace Carlson is a victim of the reactionary atmosphere in general and the witch hunt in particular. Her sudden action in resigning from the numerical small and persecuted Socialist Workers Party for sanctuary in the rich and powerful Catholic Church, is only the final effect of the many successive blows of persecution, poverty and discrimination which had been inflicted upon her during the long time she fought on the side of the poor for the great ideals of socialism”.
It was exactly this antidemocratic scenario that the SWP went through in the presidential elections between 1948 and 1956: a period marked by reactionary legislation that had led many militants to prison for making opposition to the warmongering policy of the US government (“Smith Act”), the ” Witch Hunt ” which put Grace Carlson and many others in the McCarthyism list, and the increasing violence of fascist groups like the Ku Klux Klan against blacks and immigrants. However, for the rest of the world, the hegemonic imperialism was selling the image of a democratic paradise, the American Way of Life, while it encouraged excessive nationalism in domestic affairs.
A Socialist electoral program in the heart of the empire
The cover of the electoral manifesto of the SWP in 1956 (Figure 7) showed a worker “sweeping” the candidates (of the employer) of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. It is a well know advertisement image of Soviet Russia. The first featured point in the manifesto showed the internationalist character of the SWP.
The party’s election platform advocated the recognition of the revolutionary government of China (something that had also been advocated in the 1952 campaign). It advocated the immediate withdrawal of all US troops from any country or territory; the defence and support of foreign workers’ struggles for the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of working class governments with the implementation of planned economies. In addition, part of the 1956 electoral manifesto was to support an expected struggle of the Soviet people for a political revolution to defeat Stalinism, in defence of workers’ democracy, and the complaint against the Kremlin. It continued with the Stalin’s policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the various imperialisms that laid the communist parties in several countries in alliances with capitalists.
Guided by the Transitional Program, the SWP used the electoral space to defend the nationalization of banks and big business. It defended the access to university for the youth by the reduction of the working hours to 30 per week without any salary reduction. Even within the electoral platform, the SWP emphasized the need to ensure substantial increase in wages, wide freedom to get organized in unions, the right to social security, and to extend women rights by public day care centers as part of the policy for their liberation and through equal pay for equal work between men and women. The end of any racial segregation, credit support policies for small farmers, a government of rural and city workers.
This kind of program could be defended – the way it was- due to the SWP resolution of not giving in to the pressure of electoral fronts with other organizations of the North American left, of the time, like the Workers Party. There were many important disagreements with other groups notably at the international level. In regards to the elections, the candidacy itself was the best approach, according to the SWP, at that particular historical and political moment, to build and organize the party amongst the majority of the population.
Figure 7- 1956 Manifesto cover
To seek the involvement of workers and the youth in the election campaign the SWP collected signatures from its supporters. The 1956 manifesto explained that, unlike the parties of the capitalists, with billionaire campaigns financed by large business groups like Morgan, Rockefeller and DuPont, the SWP had its campaign with voluntary donations from the workers, with a few dollars, and without any support from businees groups. The electoral campaign’s support form presented ways of voluntary contribution to the campaign (donations, participation in activities, receive explanatory material of the proposals) and a call to build the party. (Figure 8).
Figure 8- Ways to participate in the SWP election campaign
The SWP candidate campaigns of 1948-1956 were at the service of the struggles of the working class and oppressed sectors, firmly raising the banner of socialism and world’s revolution. Undoubtedly, there were very important electoral experiences starring by the SWP at that historical time, although the small number of votes denoted the little mass audience for the program presented by the party. In 1948, they obtained 13,614 votes. In 1956, 10,312 votes. In the 1956 campaign, 7,797 votes.
In 1960 there were 60,166 votes. The party had survived McCarthyism, a movement increasingly weakened, and the social struggles of the black movement were intensified. The SWP was increasingly oxygenated with increasing political activism and great excitement among the youth. The 1959 Cuban revolution was at the centre of debates around the world. Pages in The Militant announced the challenge, made by Dobbs, to a public debate with the candidate J.F Kennedy on the Cuban government, the island regarded by the Democrats as a USSR satellite. Times were different. Fidel Castro’s political regime had become an important element of the crisis that would hit the SWP and the young Fourth International. Nevertheless, that’s a topic for another time.
 James P. Cannon – On the1948 Wallace Campaign. https://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1948/02/wallace.htm
 James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism. https://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/earlyyears/cannintro.htm#Note112 The Voice of socialism: Radio speeches by the Socialist Workers Party candidates in the 1948 election. Piooner Publishers.
 BOHANNAN, W. E. A letter to American Negroes. New York, N.Y: Pioneer Publishers, 1948. Available at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/pamphlets/1948-letter-to-american-negroes.pdf
 Idem, pgs. 14 – 15
 WEISS, Myra Tanner (org). Vigilante terror in Fontana. Los Angeles. Pioneer Publishers, 1946. The tragic story of O’day H. Short and His familt. Available at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/pamphlets/1946-vigilante-terror-in-fontana.pdf
 JACKSON, ,op. cit, p.13.
 CANNON, J.P. How we won Grace Carlson and how we lost her. In: The Militant, Vol. 16, n° 27, p.4, 07/07/1952, New York, N.Y. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/themilitant/1952/v16n27-jul-07-1952-mil.pdf
 PARTY, S. W. Vote for socialism in 1956 Available at: http://ucf.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/ucf%3A4934
 TROTSKY, Leon. The transitional program for the socialist revolution.
Translation: Camila Polgar