Origins of the “Progressives”

The Death of Third Party, Reformism in the US, Part 1

Each year, the left reformist party Progressive Dane, whose power base is located in Madison, Wisconsin and in the surrounding County of Dane, hosts a political conference called “Fighting Bob Fest”. What is it about “progressivism” that leftists love so much? Bob LaFollette Jr, the “non-fighting Bob”, took his father’s political fiefdom into the Republican Party in 1946 and was trounced by Joe McCarthy for the nomination as candidate in his own Republican bid for the US Senate. It was the Milwaukee Journal newspaper that supported the Progressive Party, that once wrote of “progressivism” as a way of combating the spread of the Socialist Party of America. (1)

For Progressive Dane, a political coalition with an electoral list comprising a variety of local left parties has up to a third of the list going to “progressive” democrats. While the local Democratic Party machine sees as its mission to destroy or absorb anything to the left of themselves in order to eliminate the threat to their vote tallies. It is thus politically convenient for PD to use the cover of a classically “American” populist movement, emasculated so that terms like “labor”, “socialist” or “left” won’t start conjuring nightmares of red terror among the middle class, petit-bourgeois elements, for whom even the barest hint of anything proletarian sparks their fear and contempt. The term progressive, as it is used works towards the total eclipse of working class politics of the most tepid reformist variety from our history. The fates of the original Wisconsin Progressive Party and the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota both show what became of reformism in the US. [We’ll deal with Social Democracy and the Socialist Party of Wisconsin in a future article - ed.] They signaled the demise of third parties in power in the US and became another gravestone in the history of the left.

The Farmer-Labor Party arose out of the Nonpartisan League, an organization initiated by the Socialist Party of America among farmers in the Midwest. Up until the final dissolution of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party in 1944, the party was still polling 38 percent of the electorate and was a serious political contender in Minnesota State politics. The Stalinists in the CPUSA were behind the final merger of the Farmer-Labor Party into the Democratic machine as the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, still the dominant capitalist party in state politics. This was a part of the CP’s maneuvering in proving themselves loyal to the Roosevelt administration and to their political masters in Moscow, in line with United Front period policy. (2) In great irony, the CPUSA also engineered the scuttling of the left-reformist and labor union based reinvention of the grand “party of labor” idea, Tony Mazzochi’s Labor Party, by making sure in the 1990s that they wouldn’t run candidates in elections lest they be seen as wavering in their support for the Democratic Party. Unsurprisingly, the Republicans won anyway.

In the political history of the US it was the economic depression of the 1870s that brought about the great political upheavals that created the forebears of the main left parties in the US. The “Greenback” movement of populism and reformism, the “Grange” movement, the Populist Party and finally the Progressive Party each grew out of the discontent of farmers of that time.

The final electoral gasp of progressivism came in the form of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign of 1948, where the Social Democrats, Communists and “Progressives” came together on the electoral field for the last time. Use of the term today expresses nostalgia for a lost epoch of political relevance and an apologia of the petty-bourgeoisie for their servitude to their Democratic Party masters. It is important that later-day progressives chose to remember the fallen political fiefdom of “Fighting Bob” rather than the equally reformist, Frank P. Zeidler, the Socialist Party of Wisconsin’s last Mayor of Milwaukee, who left office in 1960.

Save for the Anti-Terror legislation of the outgoing Bush regime, it has been the “liberals” of US politics that have committed most of the greatest violations of classical bourgeois liberties: Woodrow Wilson and Attorney General Palmer in the Palmer Raids, Roosevelt and the Smith Act, and President Truman and the loyalty oath purge.

Franklin Roosevelt, whose uncle Teddy took the Progressive Party nomination from “Fighting Bob” in 1912, effectively used the rhetoric of progressivism against “economic royalists” for his own political ends. From the Spanish-American War to the final defeat of Wallace in 1948, the “progressive” movement supported preparations for every war. Even to the point of supporting cold-war preparations for WWIII. (3) “Progressivism” as channeled into the Democratic Party, emptied of reform, a reformism of indignation and obeisance to a capitalist party committed to permanent warfare and economic austerity, is in perfect continuity with the war supporting “progressives” of yesteryear.


(1) Zinn, Howard. The People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. HarperCollins. 2001. p. 353

(2) Creel, Warren. The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. The Fourth International, March 1946, Volume 7, No. 23, p. 77-81. Creel was an F-LP member and served as Secretary of the Educational Bureau of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association.

(3) Novack, George. The Rise and Fall of Progressivism. International Socialist Review. Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer 1957. p. 83-88.