- True Mission: Socialists and the Labor Party Question in the U.S.
Addressed to graduate students as well as more experienced scholars, Eric Chester's True Mission challenges us to rethink the seemingly inevitable domination of the two-party system in the United States. By examining in detail the victories and defeats of socialist politics, especially from the mid-1880s to World War II, Chester describes the failure of radical activists to mount an effective left-wing challenge to the two-party system—a failure explained in part by the unwillingness of the labor parties or their surrogate organizations to make a complete break with the dominant party system.
Organizing around celebrity candidates such as Ralph Nader, Henry George, and Robert La Follette, who often had little genuine or lasting interest in the parties themselves, third-party efforts were doomed to fail. At the same time, early progressive parties and organizations frequently favored a safer, less radical route to change by merely promoting the progressive elements in either of the main parties. Organizers were often their own worst enemy as they settled for minimal access to political power while temporarily, at least, abandoning their more radical principles.
Many scholars will enjoy the clear and well-written account of the historical foundation of modern radical politics that True Mission provides. This is a history that is often difficult for the novice to follow, especially as internal sectarian disagreement typically led to what appeared to be countless new organizations and parties, and Chester's detailed discussions go a long way toward making this history accessible. Chester suggests that the political [End Page 80] vision of labor party activists was often impeded by their inability to see the value of a truly radical approach to party politics such as that offered by various socialists. Whenever alternative parties on the left arose in the United States, too often they ignored radical socialist principles and could not avail themselves of the organizational skills that socialists had learned through long decades of internecine struggle.
Readers of this well-written and engrossing history will find a detailed discussion of the New York mayoral campaign of Henry George in 1886, Senator Robert La Follette's presidential campaign of 1924, and a discussion of American Labor Party support for Fiorello La Guardia's run for New York mayor in 1937—all as prelude to an interesting examination of Ralph Nader's presidential bid in 2000. Laced throughout is the suggestion that third-party success can only be achieved when radicals avoid the temptation to appeal to the political mainstream. As Chester notes, "Taking this as a goal can only point toward a morass of opportunistic compromises," and a return to earlier principles and tactics should be championed without apology by the left-wing of American politics as it offers a new view of an egalitarian society. Students of labor history and professionals involved in labor education and organizing will find in Eric Chester's book an insightful historical foundation for their continuing work.