Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 23, 2017

How Jacobin got Henry Wallace wrong

Filed under: anti-Communism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 8:10 pm

Like the last issue of Jacobin that attempted—poorly—to theorize ecology, the latest one devoted to the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution has generated controversy. John Bellamy Foster took apart the last issue and the ISO’s Todd Chretien has a whack at the new one that dispenses with his usually genial manner. He quite rightly views the “garlic” article by Connor Kilpatrick and Adaner Usmani as having a conclusion that “doesn’t even pass the smell test” and advancing “a rotten old argument.” That’s even more brutal that my commentary on the article.

When I heard that there was an article in the latest issue by editorial board member Seth Ackerman dumping on Henry Wallace, I decided to comment on it as well especially since my good friend Michael Yates of Monthly Review loathed it.

Ackerman is a fairly typical Jacobin type, working on a Ph.D. in history at Cornell University and who supports Democratic Party candidates using circumlocutions that might have made Gus Hall dizzy:

Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line.

This, of course, dovetails with Eric Blanc’s defense of the Non-Partisan League running campaigns on the Democratic Party ballot line 90 years ago as well as the dodgy strategy now being carried out by the DSA.

Alarm bells went off early on in Ackerman’s article (behind a paywall) when it charged Henry Wallace being a dupe of the Communist Party. He cited a historian named Thomas W. Devine whose “devastating account” of the 1948 Progressive Party in a book titled “Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism” fingered all the reds. A New Yorker article I remember well hailed Devine’s research:

Wallace’s relationship with Communism is the most fraught aspect of his career, and it dominates Devine’s book, which might be called a revision of the revisionists. At intervals since the seventies, scholars on the left have argued that Wallace’s politics—embodied most conspicuously in his run for the Presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, in 1948—opened a window of opportunity for the advancement of labor, race, and internationalist causes, and that Cold War red-baiting closed it prematurely.

I guess I am one of those revisionists since I not only singled out his campaign as a model for the left but criticized the SWP for not having the brains to get involved with it back in 1948. In discussions with Sol Dollinger, a supporter of the Cochranite group that I strongly identify with, I learned that Bert Cochran, Harry Braverman, and the mostly working-class supporters of the American Socialist magazine viewed the SWP’s hostility to Wallace as a symptom of the party’s Stalinophobia.

In summing up the Wallace campaign, Ackerman was likely recycling Devine’s conclusions, among which was that it “catastrophically isolated the Communist Party, sundering its ties to the labor movement and heightening its vulnerability to the coming tsunami of Cold War repression.” Strange. I always thought that the CP’s isolation (I would call it persecution) began with Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech. That was followed up a year later by Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9835 that would purge “disloyal” employees from government jobs. As I have often stated, McCarthyism began under Truman.

Doing a search in JSTOR revealed that Devine’s scholarly contributions appear rather meager, consisting of only 4 book reviews. Consistent with his detective work on the Wallace campaign was a review of a book by David Everitt titled “A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television” that Devine recommended because it debunked the notion that McCarthyism was an unprecedented “reign of terror” in which cynical, venal “red hunters” deliberately and relentlessly destroyed the lives and careers of anyone who so much as expressed support for racial equality or civil liberties”. Devine described this as “gauzy romanticism”.

The NY Sun, a shitty rightwing newspaper that was founded by the arch-reactionary billionaire Conrad Black and other scumbags, loved Everitt’s book as well. A reviewer particularly liked the way it nailed John Henry Faulk, a victim of McCarthyism who I spoke to once when I was in Houston, Texas building support for the SWP’s suit against the FBI. Faulk was universally beloved on Texas left back then even though Leveritt hoped to wake people up to the red menace:

Though he presented himself as a well-meaning, even naïve, liberal, Faulk was in fact a hardened left-winger with communist sympathies who privately denigrated the country he lived in. He was hardly the “Southern liberal … who detested Communism,” as Nizer put it on the witness stand; he even believed the Korean War had been planned by John Foster Dulles and Douglas MacArthur in conjunction with the pro-Chiang Kai-shek China lobby, each determined to introduce a policy that would offset the effects of the American abandonment of China.

Ah, yes. What a blackguard.

Is this really the way that the fucking Jacobin is going? What a shame.

I’ll defend Henry Wallace any day of the week, sticking to my “revisionist” convictions of the late 60s. If that disqualifies me as a “new Communist” in Adaner Usmani and Connor Kilpatrick’s eyes, so be it.

Here’s the way I see it.

During the 1930s there were opportunities for a third party based on the trade union movement, but because of the hegemony of the Communist Party, they were squandered. FDR’s New Deal attracted the blind support of the CP, even as the party ran its own ineffective propaganda campaigns for president.

Ironically it was the turn of the US ruling class against the New Deal consensus that precipitated a third party initiative in 1948, the Progressive Party campaign of Henry Wallace. In many ways, Wallace symbolized the most progressive aspects of the New Deal. As Secretary of Agriculture, he and colleague Harold Ickes played the role of liberal conscience in the FDR cabinet. He took the principles of the New Deal at face value and decided to launch the Progressive Party in the face of what he considered their betrayal at the hands of Harry Truman.

The Wallace campaign has served as a whipping boy for dogmatic Marxist electoral theorizing, much of which I took seriously when I was in the Trotskyist movement. It was supposed to prove what a dead end middle class electoral politics was, in contrast to the insurmountable power and logic of a Labor Party. Unfortunately, the Labor Party existed only in the realm of propaganda while the Wallace campaign, with all its flaws, existed in the realm of reality.

While most people are aware of Wallace’s resistance to the Cold War and to some of the more egregious anti-union policies of the Democrats and Republicans, it is important to stress the degree to which his campaign embraced the nascent civil rights movement.

Early in the campaign, Wallace went on a tour of the south. True to his party’s principles, he announced in advance that he would neither address segregated audiences nor stay in segregated hotels. This was virtually an unprecedented measure to be taken at the time by a major politician. Wallace paid for it dearly. In a generally hostile study of Henry Wallace (Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order, Graham White and John Maze), the authors begrudgingly pay their respects to the courage and militancy of the candidate:

The southern tour had begun peacefully enough in Virginia, despite the existence in that state of a law banning racially mixed public assemblies. In Norfolk, Suffolk, and Richmond, Wallace spoke to unsegregated and largely receptive audiences. But when the party went on into supposedly more liberal North Carolina, where there was no law against unsegregated meetings, the violence started. A near riot preceded his first address, and a supporter, James D. Harris of Charlotte, was stabbed twice in the arm and six times in the back. The next day there was no bloodshed, but Wallace was subjected to a barrage of eggs and fruit, and the crowd of about five hundred got so completely out of control that he had to abandon his speech. At Hickory, North Carolina, the barrage of eggs and tomatoes and the shouting were so furious that Wallace was prevented from speaking, but he tried to deliver a parting thrust over the public address system: ‘As Jesus Christ told his disciples, when you enter a town that will not hear you willingly, then shake the dust of that town from your feet and go elsewhere.’ If they closed their minds against his message, he would, like Jesus Christ, abandon them to their iniquity.

Wallace was trounced badly as a result of Truman’s demagogic appeal to some bread-and-butter issues supported by the trade union bureaucracy, which was also working overtime to purge CP’ers out of the trade unions. Furthermore, since the CP had done nothing to defend trade union prerogatives during WWII, even to the extent of supporting speed up, many rank and filers considered them to be enemies of the labor movement. On top of this, the 1948 CP coup in Czechoslovakia against the social democratic government of Edward Benes alienated many liberals and even some leftists. Despite efforts by Wallace to keep Stalin at arm’s length, the rightwing in the United States was able to exploit resentment over the situation in Czechoslovakia and paint Wallace as a “Communist dupe”.

When the votes were counted, Wallace only received 2.37 percent of the total. This disaster set the tone for a general offensive against the left in the US, focusing particularly on the CP. In no time at all, the witch-hunt was unleashed, mobs attacked the Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, and the Korean War broke out. There is very little doubt that the Wallace campaign and the forces gathered around it were the sole force capable at that time of putting a roadblock in the way of this quasi-fascist movement. If the labor movement had not been put on the defensive, if the civil rights movement had been able to move ahead under the general framework of Progressive Party campaigns, perhaps the dismal 1950s would have not been inevitable. This is not a socialist revolution, but it is the real class struggle nonetheless. Seeing the relationship between the two processes requires some dialectical insight.



  1. Yes, I loathed this essay. Ackerman comes across and a truly nasty, ugly, condescending, ignorant shithead. One of his supposed mentors, the equally condescending jackass Corey Robin, said on a Facebook thread, that he found nothing wrong with the article, that Ackerman had delved deeply into the literature and then written the piece. Really? He must have missed this piece by Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College, Peter Dreier, which you can read at http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/14297-henry-wallace-americas-forgotten-visionary. I would bet a large sum of money that Ackerman in his life will not accomplish 1/100 as much as did Henry Wallace. Dreier points out that Wallace “was the key advocate for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Soil Conservation Service, the Farm Credit Administration, and the food stamp and school lunch programs. Wallace added a program for erosion control. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sponsored research to combat plant and animal diseases, to locate drought-resistant crops, and to develop hybrid seeds to increase farm productivity. . . . Wallace, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and Rex Tugwell formed the progressive wing of FDR’s inner circle. Wallace had FDR’s ear on a wide variety of issues, and he used that influence to push for policies to help industrial workers and the urban poor as well as farmers. Wallace became the New Deal’s evangelist. In 1934 alone, he traveled more than 40,000 miles to all 48 states, delivered 88 speeches, signed 20 articles, published two books, and met regularly with reporters to promote the president and his program.” He was a champion of workers and struggling farmers, a staunch anti-racist, a foe of imperialism, and an enemy of the Cold War. Compared to him, Ackerman is an egregious anti-communist hack.

    After I read this bile-inducing hatchet job, I thought of the year I spent in NYC working at the Monthly Review office. On Wednesdays, the old timers would come in for lunch, and Harry Magdoff would hold court. Harry was an economics adviser to and a speechwriter for, Wallace. He had been Wallace’s special assistant in 1946. For his trouble, Harry was blacklisted and couldn’t get employment; his family was forced to move when the landlord refused to renew the lease. He was accused of being a Soviet spy! Later his friend Paul Sweezy had to take a case to the Supreme Court to clear himself for refusing to name names before Congress. He won the case and avoided prison to prison. Another regular at the Wednesday lunches was Annette Rubinstein, a wonderful person and literary scholar. She was also blacklisted and ended up in China so she could work. There were lots of others in the MR milieu who were blacklisted and suffered. All of this had its roots before the Wallace campaign Ackerman is so keen on demolishing. Too bad he has nothing to say about it. Not to mention that the war on labor was in full swing by 1948 too. All the reds were booted out of the unions. The best of the best, without a doubt. Not all of them or even most of them were dupes of the Soviet Union, certainly not the black communists in the south, as Robin Kelley shows in his fine book, Hammer and Hoe. And think of vicious attacks on the Soviet Union. The lies, the propaganda, the CIA subverting even art and literature. The mass murders around the world, in Indonesia and elsewhere. And we get none of this from our supposed scholar Ackerman, just a an attack on Wallace. This is ugly business.

    Finally, think of who ran for president that year. Besides the horrible Republican candidate, Taft, we had the man who dropped two atomic bombs and then helped engineer the red scare and consequent purges of labor leaders, etc. (and a racist to boot), different only in degree to the other third party candidate, racist Strom Thurmond. And we get an attack on Wallace!! A true gem of a man compared to these people. And to Seth Ackerman. Anyone who doubts this last comparison should read Ackerman’s article, which ends with this: “Henry A. Wallace was nothing if not open-minded. His mind was so open his brains fell out.” The title of the essay is “Our Favorite Dupe.” Go f*** yourself, Ackerman. If you represent the left, then we are in deep trouble. Count me out of your and Jacobin’s enterprise.

    Comment by Michael Yates — December 23, 2017 @ 9:26 pm

  2. One thing I find irritating about Ackerman is that he has a reflexive need to prove that what’s commonly understood or believed to be racist behavior or some terrible result of racism isn’t really racist at all. It is very strange.

    Comment by whoopityscoot — December 24, 2017 @ 3:17 am

  3. Would like to add some additional points on what was written in response to the awful Jacobin article that wrongly characterized Henry Wallace and his 1948 presidential campaign. First to mention overlooking two Lesbians that had an important influence on FDR’s policies: the Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt. This article does not challenge the Jacobin writers portraying Henry Wallace as some out of touch extreme left wing tool of the CPUSA and Stalin. In reality Wallace had major differences with both. It should be pointed out that Wallace actually supported Truman’s invasion and war in Korea, reflecting his own accommodation to the U. S. militarist policies, but also his annoyance to his presidential campaign being constantly referred to as a puppet of the CP and Stalin. Jacobin has had horrible articles on their attacking “identity politics” and those independent movements, as well as trying to influence their readership to stop moving leftward that engage in alternatives to the corporate controlled Democratic Party. The influence of accommodating to economic forces of neo-liberalism and identifying with such as “loyal opposition”, seems a very possible future orientation for Jacobin’s owners. it happens often to many and a way the capitalists influence the larger public politics, to keep in control and everything “under control”.

    Comment by John O'Brien — December 24, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

  4. Wallace’s 1948 defeat was presaged by the failure of the Democratic Party’s nominating Convention in 1944 to (re)nominate him (as he had been in the 1940 convention) as FDR’s running mate for the Federal elections in November. Strongly anti-Segregationist Wallace’s candidacy was undermined by the leaders of the white Southern Democrats at the convention. FDR, perhaps fearing a revolt at that Convention, caved, and, perhaps even connived with this bastardization of his New Deal presidency. The rot in the Democratic Party will always be with us.

    Comment by uh...clem — December 24, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

  5. I should have added that the Convention opted for a nobody from Missouri— Harry Truman—who acceded to the Presidency when FDR died in 1945. Would the Cold War have been stopped in its tracks if Henry Wallace had been FDR’s running mate in 1944?

    Comment by uh...clem — December 24, 2017 @ 6:02 pm

  6. To skip a few mediating links of a more detailed argument, and if I understand the arguments presented by Jacobin writers … Basically Jacobin writers are repeating what Margaret Thatcher said in the last millennium: There Is No Alternative (TINA).

    Why else would the writers go after a 1948 independent campaign that got less than 2.5% of votes? To point out the ‘futility’ of building alternatives.

    In the process, they are echoing exactly the same political line that the CPUSA adopted, starting with the build-up to American participation in WWII. That line, however, is basically the ‘TINA’ line. It basically says, work within the system, work within the established political parties.

    This is THE definition of reformISM. I personally believe in the necessity of participating in movements for reform, as I believe that organizing and agitating for reforms can create the political conditions that are more conducive to making revolutionary leaps.

    But reformism is something altogether different; it denies possibility of a revolutionary change. There is a dynamic relationship between reform and revolution; almost all revolutions start out as movements for some specific reform or other. Russian revolution’s slogan was: Peace, Bread, and Land. The slogan that propelled people to join the revolutionary tendencies was, in other words, demands for specific things.

    When publications such as the Jacobin advocate working ONLY within the system, first off, they are saying that the system is capable of being reformed to perfection (meaning, everybody in the society under such a system can be provided for by the system); which is a lie that increasing numbers of people are waking up to. Additionally, Jacobin types are by necessity denying the possibility that this system too (just like all historical systems before it) has to have an end that we human beings (agents of our lives) can bring about.

    Finally, even if you are a reformIST, you still must realize that, historically, the only times reforms have been successfully implemented were times when more radical demands were present and active on the streets, when more revolutionary agitators and organizers were pushing for far more radical reforms. So, if you are a sincere reformist, you must also encourage more radical approaches, not fight against them.

    The flip side of that historical reality is that if the Democrats succeed in silencing or killing off all alternatives to their left, then they’ll have the ‘left’ field all to themselves and can do what they’e been doing for the past forty years: take their voters for granted and shaft them at every opportunity, and facilitate the further creep to the (extreme) right.

    Comment by Reza — December 24, 2017 @ 6:19 pm

  7. James Baldwin has an essay about the Wallace campaign in Notes of a Native Son. Worthwhile reading, even if Baldwin was at that point in a different ideological position than where he was at the end of his life.

    Comment by Andrew Steuart — December 25, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

  8. Excellent commentary!

    Comment by Tom Cod — December 26, 2017 @ 4:21 am

  9. A small note on the SWP…it’s interesting that Louis points out the American Socialist Union folks Sol Dollinger, Bert Cochran, Harry Braverman et al, disagreed with the SWP’s 1948 position on the Wallace campaign. To bad they didn’t do it when they were actually IN the SWP in 1948, as they all were. Nada. Zip. They were as Cannonist as Cannon then. No, it was left up to Sam Marcy and shortly thereafter Vince Copeland from the Buffalo Branch of the SWP to take up the cause of Wallace inside the SWP. They of course left to the SWP for build the Workers World Party….

    The problem with, IMO, Louis’ writings on the Progressive Party campaign of 1948 is that it begins with that campaign, and it seems very little on what lead up to that campaign. How the many movements in the CIO for a labor party, that is a an actual class based party, were purposely scuttled by the main cadre group offering support to Wallace: the CPUSA. The redbaiting of that campaign notwithstanding, the CP played quite the dastardly role in building the movement for Wallace that became the Progressive Party.

    The problem with the SWP’s role was refusing to intervene in the literally hundreds of local CIO independent political action clubs that were captured by the CP to turn them into Stalin fan clubs and thus, in the Progressive Party clubs that abounded in the CIO from 1946 onward. No fight over any sort of class politics was raised by the SWP though one or two probes were made into them (1 in LA that I know of). The SWP saw the hand of the CP on something and the simply walked away, reducing the labor party idea to one of propaganda in the pages of The Militant (some written by Cochran, I might add). Most of this begins after the end of WWII in 1945 and gets moving in 1946 while the CP worked furiously to prevent and actual class break with the Democrats. There was quite a huge movement to support a labor party once and for all. While some got some wind in their sails, most were laid splayed by the CP’s machinations. The tool used by the CP? The Progressive Party, of course. So this is the basis for the SWP’s hostility to the Progressive Party and the Wallace campaign, much of which was their own making since they couldn’t come up with much in terms of manifesting the labor party sentiment into something concrete because of the SWP’s stalinophobia. BTW…It would be useful to read the CPUSA’s own views on the Wallace campaign in the pages of their journal, Political Affairs. Puts a different light on this discussion, I think.

    Comment by davidwalters66 — December 26, 2017 @ 5:27 am

  10. Besides the fact that Ackerman’s article is nasty, stupid, and wrong, there’s also the questionable editorial wisdom of dedicating 5 pages of the “100th anniversary of the October Revolution” issue to showing what a “dupe” Wallace was, while devoting essentially no space to the legacy of October in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There’s about a page and a half in the “Soviets Abroad” piece by Daniel Finn that acknowleges the existence of a world outside Europe and the U.S.A.; Derluguian’s piece mentions Mozambique; “From Red Square to Square One” briefly summarizes Wikipedia articles on a few countries that had pro-Soviet leaderships; and “Choose Your Own Adventure,” nominally about Cambodia, is mostly about shaming the 1970s U.S. left. You wouldn’t think, based on Jacobin, that the Soviet revolution inspired millions of people around the world, other than hockey fans and afficionados of avant guarde cinema.

    Comment by Dave Palmer — December 27, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

  11. Michael Yates, Robert Taft was NOT the Republican candidate that year. It was Thomas E. Dewey.

    Comment by Mark Brady — December 29, 2017 @ 7:13 pm

  12. Thanks for the correction. Should have checked this.

    Comment by Michael Yates — December 29, 2017 @ 10:24 pm

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