Stalinism and the Farmer-Labor Party in the 1930s

This essay was originally published as part of the book Defending Principles: The Political Legacy of Bill Brust, available for purchase from Mehring Books.

Mr. Progressive: A Biography of Elmer Austin Benson, by James M. Shields. Minneapolis: T.S. Denison & Company, Inc., 1971.

Mr. Progressive is one of the most effective, certainly unintended, indictments ever of the reactionary nature of populism and of its chief prop in the middle thirties and the forties, the American Communist Party. The expose is all the more incriminating because its author, James M. Shields, like his brother Art of the Daily World, has been for decades—and continues to this day to be—an ardent apologist for every Stalinist zigzag. The biographer depicts the political life and fortunes of Elmer A. Benson, governor of the state of Minnesota from 1936 to 1938. Shields, admittedly, is uniquely qualified to write such a work. As an “insider” within the state governmental apparatus during those two stormy “Benson years,” he knew the governor and his advisers intimately. More important, as an appointee in the state Department of Education, Shields more than any single Stalinist helped shape those anti-working class policies which shattered the Farmer-Labor Party in 1938.

Written in that familiar and nauseating tradition of abject flattery so perfected by Stalin’s own bootlickers during his life-time, the book is nonetheless a valuable storehouse and documentation of Stalinist treachery to the Minnesota and American working class. It is a treachery that has not diminished. On the contrary, Stalinism today, as yesterday, is capitalism’s most reliable weapon inside the working class movement.

Benson, despite the insinuation from many quarters, was never an actual member of the Communist Party. He was a populist and became a puppet of the Stalinists. Born to Norwegian immigrant storekeeper parents in that rural retreat of Appleton, Minnesota, on the Dakota border, young Elmer Benson was brought up to be a “God-fearing Lutheran,” In adulthood he became a regular contributor to Zion Lutheran Church and served its congregation in several official capacities. Later, as governor of the state, he was the honored speaker at the twentieth celebration of the Consolidation of the Synod and United Lutheran congregations in his home town. The gist of his spiritual message was that it was people who have failed, “not Christianity.” Another ingredient besides the stoic Protestant creed of Norwegian Lutheranism to mold his views was the “round-the-stove debates” engaged in by radical farmers of the Nonpartisan League in his father’s store. They had early aroused in him an antipathy and suspicion toward the big-city exploiters of the little rural folk.

Upon graduation from high school in 1915, he was sent to the St. Paul College of Law by a father who “was making money hand over fist.” The short period of apprenticeship served in the St. Paul law office of a prominent attorney and judge only reinforced his populist aversion to the evil prowar city slickers. The return to Appleton was interrupted by his induction into the army following America’s entry into the First World War. A broken leg while en route to the front kept him from combat service.

After the war he got a job as assistant cashier at the First National Bank of Appleton. He also became a charter member and later the commander of the Appleton post of the American Legion. He was unaware of any contradiction between his membership in this reactionary jingoist organization and his holding of pacifist views. Curiously, his prairie pacifism was even bolstered by a belated postwar enthusiasm for the writings of Woodrow Wilson, the very “pacifist” president of the US who so crassly betrayed his vow to keep America out of the European conflagration. Such glaring inconsistencies in Benson’s beliefs are not exceptional. Rather, they characterize his entire political philosophy and actions. Here, too, is the explanation for the relative ease with which the Stalinists were able later to turn him into their instrument.

Shields tells that throughout his career as an employee of a petty bank, Benson retained his populist views. The future governor loved “to play poker, though never for large stakes, for he was a cautious and canny man when it came to personal money matters.... All in all, it may be said of him that during this entire decade and a half of community life he exemplified socially and economically the career of a successful though not outstanding small-town, middle-class citizen.”

Obviously, a man with these qualities would never pose as a threat to the essential structure of the capitalist state. That was well noted within the FLP and appreciated by the more conservative anti-working class elements there. Out of concern for the farmers of Swift County in which Appleton is located, many of whom, in addition, were heavily indebted to his own bank, Benson joined the FLP at its founding in 1922.

The party was an outgrowth of two separate organizations and social classes that now merged: (1) the impoverished farmers of Minnesota headed by A.C. Townley, an authoritarian leader of the Nonpartisan League and (2) the craft trade unions led by William Mahoney, editor of St. Paul’s AFL newspaper, the Union Advocate, and at the same time chairman of the Working People’s Nonpartisan League. In 1922 the new party, waging its first campaign for state and national offices, scored an impressive victory against both the Democrats and Republicans. A senator and a couple of representatives from the FLP now entered the halls of Congress in Washington, DC, to the chagrin of both capitalist parties.

It was the 1929 stock market crash, however, which gave such a sharp impetus to the mass growth and influence of the FLP. Unemployed city workers and farmers, some of whom had prospered during the twenties and supported the Republicans, now looked to the FLP with new hope and enthusiasm. This was dramatically shown in the 1930 Minnesota elections, as the FLP swept into office with its leader and candidate for governor, Floyd B. Olson, capturing more than 65 percent of the total vote.

Politically shattered, the Democratic Party never again loomed as any serious independent electoral force in the state. In fact it was to remain moribund in Minnesota politics until the series of transfusions given it by the Stalinists in the early forties. Even then it could not stand on its own feet, but had to be grafted onto the FLP organization as what it still is to this day: the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Again in 1932 the FLP won hands down. In his second term of office Governor Olson was prevailed upon to appoint Benson to the office of commissioner of securities for the state of Minnesota. The small town banker was supported by certain farm leaders as well as “his contemporary independent banker friends, Harry Lee of Lebow Lake, Robert Berry of Long Prairie, and especially Ben DuBois of Sauk Centre, a real power in central and western counties.” Shields admits that his hero in the presence of Olson “was seldom vocal on programmatic problems. He listened, meditated, adjudged, and—only when he deemed it essential did he object.”

Whatever his meager talents as a securities commissioner, he did demonstrate a wardheeler’s zeal for elimination of “carryovers” from his department. He was in the very process of making his own appointments, when the state commissioner of banking resigned to become chairman of the Fifth Federal Reserve District.

Those same political and personal considerations which secured Benson’s appointment as securities commissioner obtained once more in his selection as the new banking commissioner. No sooner was he in his new office when there appeared on the scene an individual who, henceforth, was to decisively influence Benson’s entire political direction and his course of action. For placed at the new banking commissioner’s disposal was a relatively unknown lawyer, an assistant attorney general in the state. Roger Rotchick’s assignment was to counsel Benson on appointments. With a ruthlessness that Shields admits caused uneasiness and even “a minor furor” throughout the FLP itself, heads began to roll in the state department of banking. The amateur Benson was awestricken by the professional axe-swinging prowess of his new adviser. He likewise could not help admiring Rutchick’s knack for having at his immediate disposal the “right” people for those eliminated.

Despite an attempt to play down Benson’s ultimate total dependence on Rutchick, the biographer is forced repeatedly to detail circumstances showing Benson’s helplessness when separated from his future personal secretary and counsellor once in the governor’s chair. None of Benson’s acts as banking commissioner was to effect his reputation as a rather colorless and innocuous populist. His hurdy-gurdy was capable of droning out but two monotonous lyrics: Wars (and the munitions makers) are evil; and the chain stores are the tool of the big eastern establishment. In opposition to the latter he “was an ardent advocate of farmers living on their own land and of small business owned and operated locally.”

When by mid-1935 Floyd Olson voiced serious interest in giving up his governor’s seat so as to run for the Senate in the 1936 elections, once more it was the qualifications of the banking commissi oner that made him an instant favoritcoftheparty”ins.” The accidental death of one of the Republican senators from Minnesota gave Olson the opportunity to fill it with “a man upon whom Olson could count absolutely not to become so ambitious as to threaten a contest in 1936 for the post the governor wanted for himself.” With the assurance that “the Commissioner of Banking was amenable to the governor’s personal influence and wishes,” Benson was named for the unexpired senator’s seat in Washington. In his brief term as senator in 1936, the new appointee concentrated most of his fire on those eager to steer the country into a future war. On May 8, just before his Antiwar Propaganda Bill (S.4610) “died lugubriously in committee,” Benson spoke these fearless words from the august chambers of the Senate:

“I realize that it is useless to talk against the extravagant [naval] appropriations bill which is now before the Senate, but since next Sunday will be Mothers’ Day, and since it is a fact that the ladies of America are practically the only organized force in this country against war and for peace, it seems to be entirely appropriate for me to close my remarks with the ironic prayer for war of that great American, Mark Twain. I send to the desk and ask permission to have read the quotation from Mark Twain to which I refer.”

While Shields conscientiously quotes Mark Twain’s prayer in its entirely, with less conscientiousness he denies his readers the information that Benson’s utopian antiwar bill was crushed largely through the efforts of the man whom both he and Benson so revered: Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Benson was nominated for governor at the March 1936 convention of the FLP. While conducting his race for this office during the summer of 1936, Benson, we are told, “campaigned actively for the national Democrat candidates. In fact, one of his best speeches in the whole campaign was an ardent defense of the New Deal as the only conceivable choice for liberal voters.” Support for “liberal” imperialists characterized a whole section of the more conservative wing of the FLP.

On August 22, 1936, in the midst of his campaigning for US senator, Olson, whose nomination for this post at the FLP convention had been unanimous, died of cancer. The way was now clear for the Stalinists to run the kind of campaign they chose. First, through Rutchick, they fairly well dominated Benson himself. Second—and more important—they had maneuvered themselves into control of a large section of the FLP apparatus. Even the FLP weekly, Minnesota Leader, managed by Abe Harris, now began to spout the Communist Party’s line of the popular front. How the Stalinists were able to capture so many key posts in the FLP apparatus is barely covered in Shield’s narrative. Yet, without such in formation no understanding can be reached as to how the Stalinists managed to take over, dominate and finally wreck the FLP in Minnesota.

After the sectarian policies of the Comintern under Stalin had delivered the powerful German proletariat into the hands of their executioner Hitler, the Kremlin, at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935, ordered the Communist parties of the world to embrace “democratic” imperialism everywhere. By 1936 the American Stalinists were shoulder deep in pursuit of the policy known as the popular front (in this country christened by Browder the Democratic Front, lest there be any confusion or doubt of its intent: support of Roosevelt’s Democratic Party and his so-called New Deal). The policy was carried out in the US with that unquestioning obsequiousness that has without exaggeration earned the CP of America the reputation of being the most servile and most corrupt branch of Stalinism anywhere in the world.

Hardly a year earlier they had condemned Floyd Olson as an “incipient native fascist” in the same way as the German Social Democrats were called “social fascists.” Now, after the seventh congress, that was all changed. With practically no influence or forces in the trade unions of the state, they took full advantage of the loose organizational structure of the FLP to infiltrate the ward clubs of the party. In addition they set up scores of paper organizations in the neighborhoods and affiliated them to the FLP through the device of submitting names they had gotten from who knows where. Moreover, they formed informal blocs with numerous petty-bourgeois storekeepers and intellectuals, all with their own personal axes to grind and, many case, generally hostile to the idea of a class, that is, a working class, party.

The single force capable of defeating the Stalinists by giving an independent political direction to the trade unionists and farmers was virtually paralyzed. The Trotskyist leaders of Teamsters Local 544 with a membership of 4,000 truck drivers and warehousemen were not only the most powerful but also the most respected body in the entire trade union movement in the state. They had earned that reputation through their leadership of the Minneapolis strikes in 1934. However, the leadership and ranks of the SWP were themselves seriously divided in their attitude and approach to the FLP.

The trade union members of the SWP in the main were eager to participate in the FLP, though this largely flowed from syndicalist considerations. Since all their fellow delegates in the important Minneapolis Central Labor Union were passionate Farmer-Laborites, the 544 delegates (most of whom were in the SWP and played prominent and leading roles in the CLU) felt enormous pressure to be active in the FLP as well. Thus a kind of understanding, a grudging concession, was made to the SWP trade unionists (there were also prominent Trotskyists from many other unions besides the Teamsters in the CLU) allowing them to be more than second class citizens, passive members in that “reformist” organization.

For the facts are that the more political elements of the Trotskyist movement, nationally as well as in Minnesota, regarded the FLP as a rival political party. That this fear of the FLP was still present even two years later when it was openly expressed to Trotsky (see Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party, Bulletin Trotsky Series No. 2) was by then far less excusable. The question had, after all, been for many months theoretically debated as a central part of the discussion on the Transitional Program.

Through their domination of the FLP, the Stalinists were able to gain direct control of a large number of key CIO unions throughout the entire state. Later, when Benson became governor, he used his office against the Trotskyists, while at the same time he helped the Stalinists to solidify their hold on a score of unions.

In his inaugural address on January 5, 1937, before both Houses and the judiciary of the state, Benson repeated his vision of the dawning of a new day for the common man. All that was needed to realize this dream was for both Houses to agree to raise a trifling $38 million beyond what was raised in the previous biennium—and from wealthy sources, of course! The two single largest levies proposed were $20 million to come from a severance tax on the rapidly depleting iron ore from northern Minnesota and $7 million from Monies and Credits, that is, a tax on big business financial interests.

However the legislature proved stubborn and unsportsmanlike. They “unreasonably” refused to tax the wealthy. Benson then allowed the CP to engage in an ostentatious but fraudulent charade. A “People’s Lobby,” a populist rag-tag army of a few score out-and-out Stalinists, marched into St. Paul on April 4, 1937, and “seized” the legislature. They held it overnight, frightening a few timid legislators, but never succeeded in prying even a penny loose. The futile act served merely as the pretext for some outraged editorials and redbaiting up and down the state. The “mob” was photographed eating, lounging and even sleeping in the sacred halls of the capitol. They depicted Benson as the evil sorcerer who had “reds” and “anarchists” at his beck and call to terrorize law-abiding citizens.

The CP forces at the convention also forced through a plank taken right out of Roosevelt’s arsenal. It was a call for “quarantining the aggressor,” a direct incitation to imperialist war. That accorded, of course, with the Kremlin’s line at the time, actually less than one and a half years before the infamous Stalin-Hitler pact. The program in its essentials was indistinguishable from that of the national Democratic Party. But there was opposition. serious opposition, from trade unionists and from a good many of the farmers. They could not believe their eyes and ears at what was happening to their party. Since one of the issues the Stalinists were clearly identified with was their support for the Spanish popular front government in the civil war against Franco, some of the redbaiting centered on this question. Without a flicker of embarrassment or a twinge of conscience. Shields mentions in an offhand manner how the Stalinists simply surrendered “the Spanish issue in return for no redbaiting.”

In his campaign for a second term as governor, Benson cloaked himself in Roosevelt’s New Deal. Despite the efforts of Benson and the entire FLP leadership to get a public endorsement from the White House for Benson’s candidacy, Roosevelt remained aloof. The president was obviously unhappy about the Stalinists to whom the governor was so beholden. At last, in response to a desperate wire from some Minnesota Newspaper Guild supporters of Benson and after waiting until just a few days before the 1938 election, the presidential office forwarded a telegram to the Guild. Shields protests that its text was so inadequate that even the Democrats, who were running their own candidate for governor against both the FLP and the Republicans, “made no complaint.”

About five weeks before the end of the election, the SWP issued its own endorsement of the FLP ticket, including critical support to Benson himself. Appearing in the form of an “Open Letter to Governor Benson,” it was actually a fifteen-page brochure signed by V.R. Dunne, as Organizer of the Minnesota Section of the Socialist Workers Party. Six main points, with a number of subdivisions, constitute the socialist platform proposed to Benson and the FLP state campaign committee as a substitute for the liberal bourgeois program adopted at Duluth. The first two paragraphs, addressed to Benson and his campaign committee, state:

“Dear Friends,

“We—the members of the Socialist Workers Party in Minnesota—gave our support to Governor Benson in the primaries, and we shall do our utmost to assure his victory in the coming election. In the trade union movement, we have thrown our influence to securing, not merely perfunctory endorsements for the Farmer-Labor ticket, but a real mobilization of the organized workers to make certain the defeat of the capitalist party candidates.

“We had hoped that those guiding the Farmer-Labor campaign would realize the need of going beyond the issues touched upon in the 1938 platform adopted last Spring by the Duluth Convention of the Farmer-Labor Party. Life itself, one would have thought, would impel the campaign committee to speak out on the problems confronting the workers and farmers of Minnesota. Unfortunately, however, Governor Benson’s keynote speech at Appleton on September 20 was no improvement over the Duluth platform....

“The present program of the Farmer-Labor Party is one which can scarcely inspire the workers and farmers to close ranks and conduct the stubborn fight which is necessary for victory in the state elections. The truth is that the Farmer-Labor Party is in mortal danger of a defeat at the hands of reaction, unless the workers and farmers can be armed with a program which will spur them to the utmost effort to achieve victory.” The last two major planks from the Open Letter were: “V. For a nationwide labor party—break with the New Deal; VI. Down with Stalinist wreckers!”

The Trotskyists made a far more realistic appraisal of the political situation and the ingredients required by the FLP to win than did the Benson-CP forces. This is how Shields describes the bitterness of defeat: “Elmer Benson was deeply shocked and almost broken-hearted. Up to the very end he had counted on victory—close, yes, but still victory. How could the PEOPLE, whom he had sought so valiantly to serve, be so deluded by the redbaiting monopoly-dominated opposition as to vote out of office the only real friend and champion they had? He found it exceedingly hard to do, but he did manage to swallow the hurt long enough to congratulate the victor.”

The obvious favoritism displayed toward the Stalinist trade unionists was merely the other side of Benson’s arrogance toward and his numerous run-ins with non-Stalinist unionists, who sought to defend their members’ interests by militant means. Encouraged by the Stalinists, the governor sought to “tame” militant unionism by “New Deal”-type “harmony” between the workers and their bosses. This is what helps explain the unbelievable loss to the FLP of the two most powerful labor strongholds in the state, “Minneapolis and St. Paul by a full third of the votes cast.”

Shields describes an interesting and significant incident during Benson’s governorship that throws a bit of light on still another aspect of Midwest populism. During his governorship in 1937, Benson’s good friend from the neighboring state of Wisconsin, Governor Phil LaFollette, had paid a visit to both Germany and Italy. What had particularly struck the fancy of this “progressive” was the ability of fascism in both countries to stir the youth. Returning home, the Wisconsin governor was imbued with ambitious plans to aid a “great resurgence of youth” in this country. He even enlisted the moral and financial support of some fairly substantial, if middle-aged, industrialists. One such figure was the millionaire president of Brown & Bigelow, the huge calendar and card publishing company of St. Paul, Charlie Ward. An enthusiastic convert, he lost little time in contributing plenty of cash for producing and circulating literature and buttons emblazoned with the swastika emblem.

To win additional forces to his new movement, LaFollette invited his Minnesota friend to a private party at Ward’s forest retreat on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River. Benson came as an honored guest, bringing with him “quite a bevy of Farmer-Laborites,” including a judge, a general of the state National Guard, a state director of personnel, and many other VIPs. After wining and dining his guests at a sumptuous outdoor barbecue. Ward asked them to relax and listen to LaFollette’s message:

“He gave a stirring description of the youth movement abroad in Germany and Italy, and the rise of National Socialism to transcend the power of the cartels and trusts. It was all a gigantic mass movement of the poor, the dispossessed, the rank and file of people in those great nations, led and inspired by upsurgent youth from factory and farm as well as colleges—the Great Hope of the Future! Turning to Benson in climactic fervor the Wisconsin governor exclaimed, ‘Oh, had I but the young people of your great university to depend upon, what great things we might accomplish together.’“ Shields admits that virtually the entire Minnesota delegation of right-wing FLPers “showed interest, even Judge Daye, political realist that he was!”

Earlier, we saw how Benson and the CP, using their organizational control of the FLP apparatus at the Duluth convention in 1938, thwarted the antiwar sentiments of the delegates to push through a savage prowar plank. It was done in direct support of Roosevelt’s global military strategy for eventual participation in the second imperialist world war. Shields, after making but a single reference to January 1939, abruptly transports us to the FLP convention in Rochester, Minnesota, on March 8, 1940. In so doing, he wipes out eleven crucial months of the previous year without leaving a trace. At this convention, Shields notes, Benson was invited to address the body by virtue of a motion made by a delegate, Congressman John T. Bernard, long identified with the CP.

“Benson, thoroughly primed, rose to the occasion with his first public address since his defeat. What did he talk about? Peace and neutrality, of course.

“The Farmer-Labor Party has always been opposed to war. Under no circumstances is our party going to stand idly by while this nation drifts into war. The repressions of the people will be ten—yes, a hundred times worse than during the last war. Liberals must take the lead in combating hysteria.”

Without even a word to explain the change in line, our author simply links the prowar jingoists of 1938 with those who have “always been opposed to war.” No clarification for this volte-face is anywhere offered in the book. Suddenly the CPs of the world turned from being the most avid supporters of the Western imperialists into chanters of slogans such as: “The Yanks aren’t coming” and “Let God save the King.”

The FLP was badly split at the 1940 convention between the now thoroughly discredited CP, on the one side, and, on the other, an unhomogeneous bloc of anti-Stalinists, some of whom had become rabidly right-wing. The Benson forces and the rightwingers were able to achieve a compromise. This time Benson was to run for US senator and his chief conservative rival, Hjalmar Peterson, agreed to make the governor’s race.

Unlike his reticence concerning the Stalin-Hitler pact, Shields feels far more comfortable reporting the attack on the USSR.

“And then on June 22, 1941, came the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis. Labor ranks changed their conception of the conflict, some out of devotion to the ‘first great land of socialism,’ others from an increasing awareness that there was more to this war than a sheer power struggle between Fascist Germany-Italy and British-French imperialism.”

The American CP responded with an alacrity and enthusiasm that surpassed pure concern for the fate of the “socialist father-land.” For it meant their return to the “mainstream” in which they had previously felt so terribly comfortable: the middle class swamp of FDR’s liberal imperialism. So the Young Communist League members could put aside the chant “The Yanks are no longer coming!” Instead they now intoned “Open up that second front!” And then at the end of that same year came Pearl Harbor. What a relief for Benson, who had a1ready moved all the way over to the position of the Stalinists. Indeed, he blended in perfectly with that patriotic upsurge engulfing the nation. His American fervor swelled to such heights that he seriously considered serving his country “as major or lieutenant colonel, perhaps even full colonel.”

Though the biographer has omitted much that was relevant and essential to an understanding of Benson, he simply found no way to ignore the 1934 drivers strikes led by the Trotskyists in Minneapolis . In a modest paragraph encompassing hardly ten lines of his book, this is how he chronicles that event: “In those desperate years of the early 1930s labor really came alive in the Twin Cities, despite—or perhaps because of its continuous battles with what was probably the tightest employer antiunion organization in the whole country, the Citizens Alliance of Minneapolis. The great truck driver strike of 1934, when violence erupted all over city streets, ending in a massive funeral parade for the martyred, proclaimed to all and sundry the end of the reign of the Alliance, which earlier in 1934 had boasted it had defeated every major strike in Minneapolis since World War I.” Shields is clever enough to anticipate the inevitable questions from any and all quarters about his failure to mention, even in a passing reference, the role of the Trotskyists in leading the “great truck driver strike of 1934” and his deceitful cover-up of Stalinism during its ultraleft Third Period, when it so vehemently condemned the Trotskyists for “selling out the strike” to the Citizens Alliance.

Our sleight-of-hand artist shows his talents in dealing with another episode concerning labor’s struggles in Minnesota. It involves the efforts of employees to form and get recognition for a union of their own choice at the American Gas Machine Company in Albert Lea in 1937. Their picket line was assaulted by unionhating company thugs and sheriff’s deputies. Men and women strikers were physically beaten, tear-gassed, terrorized and thrown into jail. “The union wired for help. Armed deputies paraded triumphantly through streets. But by noon a hundred furious workers arrived from a CIO packing plant in Austin. The Minneapolis truck drivers wired that 1500 men would arrive by nightfall. Many sympathetic citizens and neighboring farmers joined the outraged crowd of nearly 2000 which swarmed about the plant and took control of the streets.”

The “CIO packing plant in Austin” was the Hormel plant organized into Local 1 of the Packinghouse Workers Union, whose local president and leadership were well known throughout Minnesota as Trotskyists. Likewise, the 1,500 “truck drivers” were from Local 544, also under SWP leadership. Clearly, such facts had no impact on him and, in the interest of economy, had to be left out. Apparently, it did not violate his tenets of economy for Shields to include the names of Stalinists, who, while they brought no forces, appeared on the scene and wallowed in the victory of the Albert Lea workers. But the biographer has the happy facility of balancing his sins of omission with plenty of sins of commission.

Daniel Tobin, president of the International Teamsters Union, tried to sabotage the great ‘34 strikes by denouncing the leaders in the public press as “communists.” But even after the victory of the truck drivers, that bureaucrat never ceased his efforts to remove by force the Trotskyists from leadership of Local 544. Among Tobin’s tactics in his unceasing war against the drivers’ leadership in Minneapolis was the importation of armed goons from as far away as Chicago and Detroit. Two of the leaders of 544, Bill Brown and Pat Corcoran, were felled by these musclemen on Tobin’s payroll.

Instead of coming to the defense of the revolutionaries, whose very lives were threatened by Tobin’s criminals, the CP of that day, in true Moscow Trial fashion, concocted and fanned rumors throughout the entire state about how the “gangsters of 544 were killing each other off.” On more than one occasion was the union forced to threaten libel action against the Stalinists unless they restricted such vicious slanders in their press. Yet even after public retractions, they continued their fantastic charges by word of mouth. The sensation-hungry, antilabor newspapers in the state were only too eager to pick up such innuendoes and use them against the Trotskyists in the same way as the Kadet press under Kerensky slandered the Bolsheviks, accusing them of being in the pay of the German kaiser. Now in the seventies Shields can hardly manufacture lies in that same crude and brazen way he and his gang did in the thirties. So how does he make his charges?

“It should be noted here, also, that the governor’s relations with leaders of the powerful Teamsters Union of Minneapolis were never really cozy. Like Olson before him, Benson questioned the sincerity of rhe Teamster leaders of those days, the notorious Dunne brothers, Vincent (‘The Brain’), Miles (‘The Mouth’), and Grant (‘The Muscle’), along with Farrel Dobbs, Patrick Corcoran, William Sinnot, William Brown, etc.”

Shields, under the guise of “objective” reporting, notes that Benson offered a $500 personal reward for the identification of the killers of Pat Corcoran who “was waylaid back of his Minneapolis home and shot to death by unknown assailants.” He adds that by now “Elmer Benson was very unhappy over Teamster leadership squabbles generally.” What a Stalinist amalgam! The lives of the 544 leadership are threatened and actually cut short by Tobin’s imported goons, and Shields, with feigned indignation, makes the victim and the criminal equally guilty before his bar of justice. Another incident, we are told, that irked Governor Benson deeply was the militant milk drivers strike in 1937. But imagine, workers daring to close down a plant in April when the governor wanted them to hold off at least until after “the June 21 primary,” so as not to offend the petty bourgeoisie and risk losing their votes.

Stalinist supersensitivity to middle class thinking and just plain hostility to working class militancy during the heyday of Browder’s Democratic Front is revealed in Shields’s report of still another labor struggle. “It was about this same time that another alleged incident was talked about; to wit, that in the town of Buffalo, Minnesota, some fifty miles west of Minneapolis, a local physician was having an apartment house built by local workers. Suddenly, Walter Frank, organizer for the Twin City building trades, appeared and demanded to see their union cards. When none was produced, he loudly announced, ‘By God, you’ve got just 24 hours to show cards or there will be the goddamdest explosion here you ever heard.’ Accordingly, for several days and nights the premises were patrolled by indignant citizens armed with shotguns. Word of this alleged incident was circulated far and wide.” Shields’s purpose in relating this incident is to arouse in the reader genuine pity and understanding for Governor Benson’s plight. For if only the labor movement had “behaved” itself during his term of office, he would presumably have been easily reelected as governor.

In early June 1941, Tobin, one of Roosevelt’s most obsequious labor lieutenants, ordered the Trotskyist leaders of 544 to appear before the International Executive Board of the Teamsters in Washington and stand trial on charges preferred against them. At the same time the local leadership was informed that a receiver had already been put over 544 with absolute authority to expel anyone for any reason from the union. Behind the action by Tobin lay the refusal of the 544 1eaders to bow to RooseveIt’s increasingly urgent insistence that the unions without exception give up their independence and militancy as a key part of America’s imminent entry into the second imperialist war.

Rather than allowing the hard-won gains and democratic rights of members to be destroyed by Tobin, the Trotskyists decided to fight back. On June 9, 1941, to the full membership of 4,000 workers that filled the huge union hall, the entire basement, and overflowed into Plymouth Avenue and its side streets, the leaders soberly outlined the harsh realities facing the union and the alternatives. Their recommendation was for 544 to disaffiliate from the AFL and accept a charter from the CIO. When the vote for disaffiliation was put, a deafening roar of yesses from both within and outside the union hall rent the air of north side Minneapolis on that warm summer evening. When the no vote was put, there was absolute silence.

Tobin acted at once. His goons, hundreds of them, were shipped into Minneapolis the very next day and for weeks that army (they were armed) swelled. Four days after 544 switched its affiliation, Roosevelt also took a direct hand. His secretary, Stephen Early, according to the New York Times of June 14, 1941, admitted in a White House press conference that Tobin had asked for prompt assistance from Roosevelt’s office. And while Tobin and Jimmy Hoffa’s goons were forcing an unwilling membership to remove their 544-CIO buttons from their caps, FBI agents invaded SWP headquarters in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, seizing books, pamphlets and newspapers that were to be found on most public library shelves. Within a month twenty-nine members of the SWP (most of them leaders of 544) were indicted under five counts. The first one was based on an 1861 statute aimed at Southern slaveholders during the Civil War. The fifth charge was the infamous Smith Act. Later, under Joe McCarthy, the Stalinists, who did their utmost to sabotage broad union defense of the Trotskyists, were themselves indicted through this same “Omnibus Gag” law. The following bit of information, not previously published, demonstrates how the Stalinists, through Benson, still functioned in Moscow-Trial fashion:

“That June the press carried stories that the national CIO had accepted or was about to accept the Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544 with its Trotskyite leadership to membership in good standing. Benson was horrified. He immediately wrote Lee Pressman, CIO general counsel:

“Regardless of what the national organization of the CIO does or had done in this matter, I want to assure you that I am going to continue my opposition to this type of labor and political leadership. We need aggressive, radical, intelligent and honest leadership in the labor movement, and eventually we are going to gel it, but not from this type of leadership. To be sure, these men are intelligent, but they are crafty, corrupt, dishonest leaders of labor, and dangerous men both in the political and economic movement. I hope you will realize the necessity for cooperating with some of the fine leaders you now have in this state and not permit a racketeering group to gain control.”

It was hardly much of a secret that Pressman at the time was himself a strong sympathizer, if not actually a member, of the CP. Thus, the Stalinists, who had done all in their power to sabotage the victory of the Minneapolis truck drivers, could now claim considerable credit in separating the fighters of the ‘34 strikes from their elected leaders, forcing the men back into Tobin’s gangster-ridden union.

With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22,1941, the role of the Minnesota section of the CP was to push the FLP into an electoral bloc with the state’s Democratic Party. Their conscious aim was to lay the groundwork for rapid organizational fusion with the Democrats. In chapter XVIII of his book entitled “Merger,” Shields, with unconcealed brazenness, confides that the first consideration impelling the “left wing” (the Stalinists, of course) toward fusion with the Democrats was the matter of financial and job handouts from Washington. But another important factor for “people like Rutchick and Elmer Benson, was the strong possibility that in the coming national election, with a split liberal vote, the Republicans might well carry the state against FDR—or whomever the Democrat candidate might be should Roosevelt decide against a fourth term. That was a calamity to be avoided at all costs.”

But there were extreme difficulties faced by the Stalinists in seeking to bury the FLP. Hatred of the Democrats in the state ran as deep among broad sections of both the workers and farmers as hatred of the Republicans. Hence, the merger struggle that began in earnest in 1943 was carefully fought out within the narrow confines of the organization itself. None of the factions took the issues into the ranks of the working class, not even those who fought for FLP independence from both capitalist parties.

Already dominant in the FLP thanks to both their bloc with the populists and their own superior cohesion and discipline, the Stalinists confidently began negotiations with the much tinier group of professional Democrats led by one Hubert H. Humphrey. But the Democrats compensated for their smaller numbers by having behind them the support of the national democratic organization and, above all, the power represented by Roosevelt in the White House, a man before whom the Stalinists stood in awe. The Humphryites were demanding no more than actual control of the new party. So what was the “left” to do?

“During the bickering between the merger committees Benson took the position within his own committee that it really didn’t matter too much if the Democrats kept the top jobs in the new organization, providing the Farmer-Laborites could maintain parity in the merged central committee. Let them have the county chairmen for now. That could be taken care of at the next county conventions. The main thing was to accomplish the merger itself and set up a campaign organization in which all forces could cooperate.”

Within a year of the merger, says Shields, “the shotgun wedding honeymoon of Farmer-Laborites and Democrats was nearing an end.” But let us quote this most revealing passage from Shields in its entirety: “Hubert Humphrey was now mayor of Minneapolis, thanks to farmer-labor and especially left-wing labor support, along with heavy backing from the Minneapolis Tribune and Star Journal and financial tycoons in the milling industry. Humphrey, likewise, was the highly ambitious symbol of a coterie of young Democrats in the Political Science Department of the University of Minnesota. His first act as mayor had been to go back on his pledge to labor leaders that they were to name the chief of police. Instead he gave that privilege to a special law enforcement committee headed by Bradshaw Mintener, vice president of the huge milling firm of Pillsbury Mills, Inc. Mintener’s committee chose a typical J. Edgar Hoover type of ‘red hunter’ by the name of Ed Ryan, a move that served to disillusion left-wing union leadership and at the same time give the ambitious mayor a willing tool to use later in his efforts to wrest control of the DFL from its left leadership.”

We have presented this long and illuminating quotation because in it Shields really gives the whole thing away. The “left wing,” that euphemism for Stalinism, was admittedly the “father” in this sordid “shotgun wedding” that had so quickly turned sour. Furthermore, Shields insists on credit for helping to create that monster on labor’s back known as Hubert Humphrey, Shields withholds the nature of Humphrey’s substantive first act on becoming mayor of Minneapolis with that “especially left-wing labor support.” For even before selecting a committee to choose a police chief, Humphrey ordered his cops to escort scabs through the picket line and help break the strike of the Bell Telephone Co. employees, who were bannering the company’s entrance immediately across the street from the court house in which the new mayor had just settled.

Shields confides that, as late as the 1946 convention of the DFL, the Stalinists were in a position to definitively destroy the political career of Humphrey. His antilabor record as mayor had disillusioned workers throughout the city, including whole sections of trade union officialdom. The latter were even prepared to vote with the Stalinists to rid themselves of Humphrey. Indeed, so hostile were the questions put to him by a leading group of unionists at the convention, that the mayor, who was seeking their support for his candidacy for governor, broke off the private meeting and in a fit of petulance left the room:

“But after he left there was a long consultation among convention leaders. They certainly had the votes to promote whatever program and slate of officers or candidates they pleased, and they were all set to endorse only liberals of their choice. But one persuasive voice was raised for compromise, for unity, for ‘the good of the party in the future. The voice was none other than that of Clarence Hathaway, one-time editor of the Daily Worker but ousted some years back allegedly for personal problems. Hathaway, now organizer for the CIO Electrical Workers Union, was highly respected both for his political judgment and for his reformed personal life. Now he persuaded Benson, Rutchick and others to agree, for the sake of party unity, to elect a mixed slate.

“Accordingly, the final convention choice of officers included two opposition vice-chairmen and—most important of all—as party secretary Orville Freeman, ex-marine lieutenant and one of Humphrey’s closest associates. As Benson commented years later, ‘Thus the door was held open to the termites, and once in they never left.’“ Whether or not the “termites” were indeed really trounced then or not, an international Stalinist leader, Hathaway, aided them in their comeback. It was, incidentally, this same Hathaway who, in 1928, voted to support the expulsion of Cannon, Shachtman and Abern for their support for Trotsky, who was being criminally vilified by the Kremlin.

Honing their axes over the grindstone of Truman’s Cold War, which shortly afterwards broke out, the Humphreyites, like happy chicken butchers, began to lob off one Stalinist head after another in the DFL. Previously, the Stalinists always clucked proudly over their ability to outmaneuver their liberal opponents. Now, however, they suddenly found themselves the rather easy victims of a cabal of younger Democrats, most of them from “the Political Science Department of the University of Minnesota.” These ambitious, career-minded young professors had indeed studied their Machiavelli thoroughly. And like Arthur Naftalin, the future mayor of Minneapolis, knew how to apply the Florentine statesman’s teachings against the CP. Very soon the Minnesota branch of the Communist Party joined the rest of the nation’s Stalinists in reaching for the tailcoats of Henry Wallace and his capitalist third party movement. “Elmer felt that Wallace was a godsend at the time to progressives faced on the one hand with the intransigent anti-Soviet foreign policy of Harry Truman, and on the other with the domestic hardcore Republicanism of Dewey.”

In January 1948 Benson accepted chairmanship of the Progressive Party. The Stalinists made a final try to capture the DFL by bringing what they thought was Wallace’s impeccable credentials and prestige into the party to do battle with the State Department liberals in Minnesota. But the tarnished image of the man who, under Roosevelt, had plowed under hundreds of thousands of pigs before the eyes of America’s hungry millions, only isolated the Stalinists even more. Neither the farmers nor the labor movement were the least bit interested in that kind of shoddy bargain.

Thus, the efforts of the CP to capture the DFL through Wallace backfired. So badly were they defeated at the DFL convention in June 1948 at Brainard that the Stalinists and their hangers-on pulled out in a huff and went to Minneapolis where they set up a rump “DFL” convention of their own.

To salvage what could be salvaged, Benson and his people chose a committee of seven to supervise the gathering of signatures aimed at getting the Progressive Party with Wallace as its president on the Minnesota ballot. It was composed of “Elmer Benson, Selma Seestrom, Orville Olson, Tony DeMaio, Henry Supak, Carlton Todd, and Jerome Kaner.”

Now these same worthies, who had just been kicked in the teeth by the anticommunist liberals of the DFL, announced their support—of whom?—of Humphrey for the Senate. Hear the reasoning of these “principled” politicians: “Despite their antipathy to the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey for the Senate, they decided against opposing him for the reason that it might detract from the likelihood of defeating the hated Republican incumbent, Joe Ball, and hence prejudice union people who supported Wallace but hated Ball more.” So once again the CP, with their customary pragmatism and cowardly fear of isolation from “a solid rank and file base,” simply helped decorate with bunting the shillelagh held in Humphrey’s hand and which he was to continue to use with such effect on Stalinist and, unfortunately, on workers’ skulls as well.

In 1939, that is, long before the present degeneration and abandonment of Marxism by the SWP, Vincent R. Dunne, so maligned in Shields’s book, wrote about his view concerning the defeat of the FLP in 1938 and his estimate regarding a resurgence of a labor party in the state and nation. We ask the reader to contrast his grasp of reality with the whirrings of the Bensons, the Shields. The passage is taken from Colvin’s book, A Rebel in Thought (New York: Island Press, 1944):

“The shattering of the Farmer-Labor Party in November 1938 (it was not merely an electoral defeat) was the inevitable culmination of a course shaped by politicians, compromisers of all sorts, and outright charlatans. Only the smug and timid will conclude, however, that the Labor Party has been destroyed.

“The idea of independent political action is based upon something much firmer and more important than the hazy whims of the campus radical or the wishes of semiskilled intellectuals who look at their belt buckles for inspiration. When the Labor Party, or Farmer-Labor Party, comes back into Minnesota, it will be as part of a nationwide movement based on and dominated by the mass trade unions, dispossessed farmers organizations and unemployed sections affiliated with the trade unions. The driving force of such a political party will bring to its support the so-called middle class in present day society....

“That the trade unions will finally tread this path, there can be little doubt. The New Deal has evolved into a war deal. The millions who have been taken off the breadline will not return to selling apples on the street corners. The Republicans, even as the Democrats, have only one program of ‘reconstruction;’ cut wages, hamstring the unions, starve the unemployed, drive the farmer into bankruptcy, and give all the Coughlins free rein. The trade unions, either with the present leadership, or against it if necessary, will be forced to organize and lead a labor party toward the conquest of state power, thereby clearing the way for the reconstruction of our world on the plane of reason, logic, and justice.”