Vito Marcantonio, Ethnic Populist

— Dan Georgakas

Vito Marcantonio:
Radical Politician, 1902-1954
By Gerald Meyer
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989, 1991,
$49.50 cloth, $16.95 paper.

A BIOGRAPHY OF Vito Marcantonio is long overdue. He was the most electorally successful radical American politician of this century, serving fourteen years in the House of Representatives (1934-36; 1938-50) and leading a modestly successful third party. Gerald Meyer's appreciative but not uncritical biography is especially sensitive to the electoral strategies of Marcantonio and by implication their relevance to contemporary politics.

Marcantonio did not begin his political life with a third party orientation. His base was the immigrant Italian community of East Harlem where he lived his entire life and got his political baptism in the campaigns of Fiorello La Guardia.

New York City was a Democratic bastion, but the mostly Irish and German power brokers of Tammany Hall were not responsive to Italian interests and would not advance Italian candidates. As a consequence, La Guardia and then Marcantonio first won office as progressive Republicans. Marcantonio's narrow defeat in 1936 was due to the Democratic landslide, but that presidential campaign also brought about the creation of the American Labor Party (ALP), which would prove crucial to Marcantonio's subsequent success.

The ALP -- A Party for the New Deal

Led by David Dubinsky and Alex Rose, leaders of trade unions and fraternal organizations oriented to the Socialist Party wanted to provide an electoral line which allowed socialists to vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt without voting Democratic. In 1936, the year of its creation, the ALP provided 274,925 votes for Roosevelt and more or less ended the Socialist Party as an electoral force in New York. The ALP's declaration of principles was only vaguely socialist but resolutely New Deal. Marcantonio soon joined the ALP, and in alliance with Communists, he first became leader of its left wing and then of the entire party. His influence eventually grew so strong that the social democrats left the ALP in 1944 to form the Liberal Party.

New York State allows candidates to run on more than one party line and to have their total votes combined. In 1937 the ALP's 482,790 mayoral votes for La Guardia were over 21% of his total and provided the margin of victory. In like manner the ALP gave Marcantonio 45% of the votes needed to return him to the House.

Gerald Meyer offers considerable detail on subsequent elections to show how the ALP operated as a kind of semi- independent political entity. The usual pattern was for the Democrats and/or Republicans to offer token opposition or to fuse with the ALP in some contests if the ALP did not field candidates in others. In the case of Marcantonio, he was often able to win one or both of the major party primaries. He was able to run on two party lines in five elections and on three party lines in two others.

Whatever the specific lineup in any election, the ALP was always willing to bargain away its interests elsewhere to bolster Marcantonio's chances. Nevertheless, for more than a decade ALP candidates were elected to City Council, the State Assembly, and the State Senate. In 1948 the South Bronx also elected Leo Isaacson as the second ALP member in the House.

Marcantonio As Politican

Marcantonio's hold on Italian Harlem stemmed from very conventional political techniques. He was extremely effective in handling the mundane needs of his district. Typical of his style was his presence every Tuesday at his district office to personally deal with individual problems of his constituents. To Italian Harlem he was never The Congressman or Signor Marcantonio, but simply “Marc.”

While keeping the Mafia and the Catholic Church neutral by avoiding direct confrontations, Marcantonio used patronage and political leverage with the skill of the best machine politician, and he built an electoral machine that was the envy of other New York politicians. Much of his specific philosophy of government, especially in the early years, derived from Italian advisers whom Meyer discusses at length.

Broadly speaking, Marcantonio's radical politics sprang from ethnic needs rather than from abstract ideology. His considerable legal skills and oratorical flair were other major assets as he championed the rights of workers and the foreign born. Italian Harlem gave him the majority of its votes in every election he entered.

Far more unusual was his ability to create a second ethnic bastion in El Barrio, the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans on the American mainland. The redrawing of his district's lines and a wave of new immigration could have eroded his electoral base, but Marcantonio responded by becoming as fierce an advocate of Puerto Ricans as he was of Italians. He became co-counsel for Albizu Campos, the leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, and he repeatedly entered bills for Puerto Rican independence. His efforts were so well received in El Barrio that the ALP became the largest party in its precincts.

The first Puerto Rican to win elective office on the mainland, Oscar Garcia Rivera, was sent to the State Assembly in 1937 with the majority of his votes coming from the ALP line.

Another section of Marcantonio's district touched Black Harlem where the ALP again proved useful in addressing ethnic problems. The ALP ran the first Black candidates for several local offices, and in 1942 the ALP played an important role in the maneuvers that brought Adam Clayton Powell the Democratic nomination and then election to the House. Throughout his own terms in Congress, Marcantonio did important committee work on fair employment standards and various civil rights legislation, including bills to abolish the poll tax.

Marcantonio and the Communists

Unlike La Guardia who gravitated toward the political center, Marcantonio drifted further to the left with a domestic political agenda roughly parallel to that the Communist Party (CP). Marcantonio also remained in the CP orbit in matters of international relations, going so far as to defend the Hitler-Stalin pact.

Marcantonio may have been one of those the CP considered more useful as a friend (a la Paul Robeson) than as a member. More likely, Marcantonio's populism was just too profound to be comfortable within the CP apparatus, even during its Popular Front period.

Meyer could have probed more deeply into this terrain, but he makes it clear that the CP needed Marcantonio more than he needed the CP. On the other hand, Marcantonio's campaigns greatly benefitted from the work of CP activists.

As the Cold War began to take shape, Marcantonio was increasingly derided in the press as a red or a Communist stooge, making it hard from him and the ALP to move beyond their established bases. In 1947 a new state law prohibited candidates from running in more than one party primary (as Marcantonio had always done), and in 1950 after casting the only vote against the Korean War, Marcantonio was defeated by a coalition candidate put up by the Democrat, Republican and Liberal parties.

Despite the enormous resources brought against him, Marcantonio was still able to win 46% of the vote. Neither his defeat nor McCarthyism at high tide dissuaded Marcantonio from radical commitments. He became counsel for Communists such as W.E.B. DuBois, a long-time ally, and Ben Gold, president of the Fur and Leather Workers Union.

He also began to shape a strategy to deal with the new legal and political realities. His major focus was to transform the ALP into a truly independent party. This caused a bitter dispute and fallout with the CP, which withdrew its support of the ALP in 1953. The reasoning behind their move was that outright American fascism was at hand.

Marcantonio went ahead with his own plans and had just returned from the printer with nominating petitions for the next election when he suffered a fatal heart attack in the summer of 1954. Without its leading personality, the ALP drew less than 50,000 votes for its gubernatorial candidate. Two years later, the ALP formally dissolved.

Truism and Speculations

Marcantonio's ability to maintain a strong radical profile without losing his working-class base intrigues Meyer, as it should every political activist. The answer touches on some truisms about U.S. politics. Americans generally vote what they think are their economic interests, and they are most concerned about domestic and even local issues. Much as voters disparage abstract government, they develop a strong personal loyalty to specific local politicians, regardless of how those politicians are viewed by outsiders.

The Great Depression, the New Deal, and anti-foreignism magnified these forces in Marcantonio's favor. For his constituents, “Marc” was the fearless paladin of the foreign born and the ultimate New Dealer. The ALP underscored this class orientation with campaign appeals such as its trademark slogan: “Don't Scab at the Ballot Box.”

On most economic issues, Marcantonio's views and that of his constituents were naturally confluent. Before the full force of the red scare became a factor, those same constituents were not greatly concerned about foreign affairs or were willing to follow his lead.

Marcantonio was only 52 at the time of his death. His demise, the end of the ALP, the failure of the Progressive Party, and the end of CP domination of the American left all signaled the end of an era that had begun in the 1930s.

One can only speculate about what kind of political role Marcantonio might have played had he lived to become part of the emerging civil rights movement with which he had so many affinities.

Among all the Popular Front radicals, Marcantonio would also seem the most likely to relate positively to a New Left whose early emphasis was on urban reform and participatory democracy.

Most discussions of third party alternatives naturally concentrate on abstract principles and national needs. One of the drawbacks of this approach is that any electoral success seems distant. For electorally minded radicals the career of Marcantonio and the history of the ALP offer a different perspective, an example of a highly pragmatic regional party able to exploit a specific set of local factors.

Such regional parties might be viable contemporary options, if only as part of an interim strategy. They are certainly worth considering for geographically concentrated groups who need immediate political relief of some kind but are distrustful of the conventional parties. Activists curious about the potentialities as well as the considerable drawbacks to such a strategy will be well rewarded by a careful reading of Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954.

ATC 52, September-October 1994

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