Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Vito Marcantonio

After the post-2000 political disaster, I have largely come to believe that 3rd parties are an absurd novelty in American political life. But I still believe there are cases where 3rd parties can make a real difference on the local level. If the Green Party hadn't hitched their wagon to Ralph Nader and instead focused on building from the ground up, either within or without of the Democratic Party, they could have made a real difference. Instead, they became a national joke and a direct cause of the disasters befalling the United States and the world. Of course, no one ever accused ex-hippies of having even slightest understanding of the American political system or of complex thinking about the world. Or at least I haven't made this accusation.

Anyway, what the Greens could have done is follow the example of Vito Marcantonio and the American Labor Party. Marcantonio is the closest thing to a communist to ever serve in the United States Congress. In 1934, he was elected from East Harlem after being key to the reelection of Fiorello LaGuardia as New York's mayor. But after being defeated for reelection in 1936, he came to a epiphany, for reasons that I am unsure of at this point, and joined the American Labor Party, winning back his congressional seat in 1938 and serving until 1951. He gave the left a strong voice within the Congress in a safely Democratic district and thus forced the Democrats to run to his positions. The American Labor Party was heavily backed by the Communists and thus Marcantonio was subject to red-baiting throughout his political career. He was defeated in 1951, not by a Republican, but by Democrat James Donovan after he refused to vote for US participation in the Korean War. While in hindsight, voting against the Korean War is a move I feel ambivalent about, I certainly respect his principles. Unfortunately he became an early political casualty of the Cold War.

Marcantonio served labor and peace interests throughout his tenure and in 1940 came out against US participation in World War II, something that he understandably changed his mind about after Pearl Harbor. He fought for civil rights for all Americans, regardless of color, at a time when most Americans thought this was absurd. Of course J. Edgar Hoover hated him and the FBI investigated him throughout the 1940s and up to his death. I imagine this was a badge of honor for Marcantonio. He remained politically active after his defeat but died far too young, in 1954, from a heart attack at the age of 51. It would have been interesting to see how Marcantonio would have been received in the late 1960s, when he would have been in his 60s. Would he have been an elder statesmen to the youth of that generation or a has-been? Hard to know but fascinating to think about.

Marcantonio serves as an example of a progressive who went to the mat for things he believed in, regardless of where on the political spectrum this put him. He gave a voice in Congress to people that neither of the major parties really cared too much about in the 1930s and 1940s. Also, say what you want about the communists, but they knew something about building political movements. They worked from the ground up rather than stupidly challenging the national party from the left and throwing elections to the right. That they failed says much more about local conditions, national identity, and mythology in the United States than their own methods, at least up until the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. While I'm neither defending nor condemning American communists here, I do think that they serve as an interesting case study of alternative political movements in American history and that Vito Marcantonio is a shining light of these often forgotten movements.