Power on the Left

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Lawrence Lader has previously written seven books and hundreds of articles, many on such controversial topics as abortion and birth control. He is a popular historian, not an academic one, choosing to write about topics that he has a personal interest in and commitment to. His latest effort is no exception. From 1946 to 1951 Lader worked for Congressman Vito Marcantonio, one of the most radical members elected to the House and often labeled a Communist; Lader himself ran unsuccessfully for the New York State Assembly on Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party ticket in 1948. Seemingly, his politics have not changed much over the last thirty years. He has written a sympathetic yet critical, comprehensive study of left movements and parties since World War II.

Lader begins with what he knows best and what he feels has been grossly misunderstood: the attack on labor and the left in 1946 and the rise of Marcantonio as a spokesman in Congress for those interests. With a solid base among the poor European immigrants and Puerto Ricans of his East Harlem district, Marcantonio served in Congress from 1934 to 1950, championing such causes as abolishing the poll tax, opposing discrimination, and the rights of labor. Called a Communist, which he always denied, the charge led to his defeat in 1950, the result of the Red scare hysteria then sweeping the country. For Lader, Marcantonio represented a successful left politician who understood the needs of his constituents. He was important because he was so rare.

Marcantonio was not alone, however, in mounting a left challenge to President Harry Truman’s conservative policies and the deepening Cold War. By 1948, organized labor was on the defensive, patriotism was fast becoming something that could not be taken for granted but had to be proven, and money was being poured into Europe to stem the Red tide. Former Vice-President and Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace emerged to lead a third party challenge to these policies, heading the Progressive Party ticket with Idaho Senator and cowboy singer Glen Taylor. The main thrust of the Progressive Party’s platform was to offer alternatives to the Cold War, including banning the atomic bomb, control of the Ruhr by the Big Four, a unified Irish nation, and a peaceful approach to solving world tensions. The domestic planks were perhaps more radical: national health insurance, price controls, strong federal antidiscrimination legislation, and public ownership of major banks, railroads, electric power and gas systems, and tideland oil. Severely red baited and lacking the support of increasingly timid organized labor, Wallace received only 2.38 percent of the vote. Hardly a radical, Wallace captured what little remained of a vision of justice at home and peace in the world. Such optimism would not return for more than a decade.

The left entered the 1950’s on the defensive. Purging the left was first fashionable in the labor unions, federal government, and in Hollywood, and then spread throughout society. Prominent Communists were easy scapegoats for the country’s supposed loss of China, for the loss of the secret of the atom bomb to Communism, and for the frustration of fighting in Korea. Prominent among those persecuted, in addition to the Communist Party leadership, were Alger Hiss (which brought fame to fledgling Congressman Richard Nixon), Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (who eventually paid with their lives), Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, and many actors and other show business personalities such as Larry Parks. Less publicized, but perhaps more damaging, was the labeling of thousands of average people as subversives, leading to their loosing their jobs and being shunned by friends, family, and community. Led by Joe McCarthy in the Senate and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), the attack was multifaceted, pursued eagerly by labor unions, public employers such as state universities, the mass media, smaller state versions of HUAC, public school systems, and private employers. By the mid-1950’s, the left was little apparent, having been jailed, silenced, or driven into an anti-Communist partnership with government and business.

In the midst of this bleak time, however, protest was stirring in the South. In December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a forty-two-year-old seamstress, refused to give up her bus seat to a white in Montgomery, Alabama....

(The entire section is 1783 words.)