Over the last few months, I’ve been reading a good bit about Henry Wallace and the mid-century left for a potential project. And while I now don’t think Wallace is so important in this project as I originally thought, reading all of this literature has been interesting, especially in the context of this year. A few perhaps slightly random thoughts.
1) Henry Wallace is a really interesting guy. A pure rural American dreamer with often very good ideas about both agriculture and the organization of society. He could play politics enough during the FDR years to save himself, which he would struggle with later. His fall from being named VP in 1940 to being a pariah in 1948 seems remarkable but it really isn’t. Wallace was only VP because Roosevelt absolutely demanded it. The rank and file political machine of the party hated him with a great passion. Roosevelt was in a weaker position within the party in 1944 and somewhat unceremoniously dumped Wallace for Harry Truman. Moreover, Wallace was also motivated by ideas and solid principles. When that became peace with the Soviets, he wasn’t going to change. He was not a man to shift with the times. Wallace was also undermined by his own intellectual interests, including following weird religious charlatans who he let influence American policy, which came back to bite him later.
2) The left was a more complex place in the mid-1940s, largely because it was much larger and more organized than today. Generally speaking, there were two groups. First were left-liberals in the Wallace or Rexford Guy Tugwell mode. Second, there were the Communists. Internally within Wallace’s campaign, this became the main battleground. The thing about the Communists is that they were in fact taking orders from Moscow. That was the big historiographical insight during that brief period where the Soviet archives were opened after 1991. Despite New Left historians denying that CPUSA was at Moscow’s beck and call, they totally were. The ideological inflexibility this created really dragged Wallace down. It also, along with the constantly shifting positions because of following Moscow’s guidelines, made the Communist Party a uniquely terrible organization for the United States. It wasn’t just conservatives that got frustrated with and then swore off the Communists. It was other non-communist lefties. They were almost impossible to work with. And they were effectively running the Wallace campaign, using him for their own aims. Wallace, believing the Soviets were a rightful ally, refused to see this until reflecting after his humiliating defeat.
3) In a related matter, we on the labor-left often bemoan the CIO kicking out the communists in the late 40s. There is much to this–the communists were great organizers after all and they dealt with racism more effectively than other CIO unions. But looking back, the decision to get rid of them seems almost inevitable. First, John L. Lewis was using the communists from the moment he invited them to help with industrial organizing. He was fine with them if he had them under his control. But he was fundamentally anti-communist. Second, after Lewis left, Phil Murray was a classic Catholic unionist in that he had no tolerance for communists at all because of the influence of the Catholic Church. Third, we forget how much many of the rank and file, even in the communist-led unions, hated the communists. Some of this was for religious reasons, but some of it was because of communist tactics and the same constantly shifting but always rigid ideological positions that drove the rest of the left crazy. Some rank and file members were writing the government, begging for investigations to drive the communists out of their own unions. Combine all of this was the conservative backlash after 1946, and I don’t really know what choice the CIO had. Keeping the communists in the CIO and refusing to go along with Taft-Hartley almost certainly would have led to the crushing of the CIO, not a long-term leftist movement. None of this is to excuse the behavior of a lot of people in this whole situation and certainly not to excuse the anti-communist foreign policy of the AFL-CIA years. But I just don’t know what other realistic alternative there was out there.
4) The left’s infatuation with third party movements to get back at perfidious Democrats did not start with Ralph Nader. One can trace this perhaps back to the anti-slavery parties of the 1840s and through the Populists and LaFollette in 1924. But probably the real root is 1948. And like in 2000 or 2016, it simply made no sense on the face of it. The left did genuinely feel that Truman had betrayed them through his foreign policy. But did it make more sense to see Dewey elected (or even Taft, which was possible when this movement started)? Reading about the reaction of the liberal left to Truman pulling out the win, the response is a lot like a lot of Nader voters felt in 2000 for the 3 seconds that it seemed Gore had won–relief. But if there was no real chance of winning, and in this case as in 2000 there was not, then why engage in the third party campaign in the first place? To show up those evil moderate sellout Democrats? When has that ever moved the Democratic Party to the left? It has not. And of course once Wallace lost, the party completely crumbled, as every third party has done in the U.S. after it fails.
5) The one thing that the Wallace campaign does deserve credit for is for his southern tour where he directly confronted racism. For the 30s and most of the 40s, liberalism was in part built on accepting the oppression of African-Americans in the South. Wallace simply would not allow that. His tour of the South, at very real threat to his body and the bodies of his supporters, did genuinely help to make fighting segregation and lynching a central part of mid-century liberalism. No longer could liberals or the left broadly construed accept the worst aspects of racism as a given.
The extent to which any of this is relevant understanding contemporary politics is I suppose up in the air. But I find some of this useful for contextualizing the trajectory of left and electoral politics.