Time Capsule: A Modest Radical Seeks the White House

Declaring that the “hour of Socialist Revolution has struck,” the tiny Socialist Labor Party (SLP) — the original party of Marxism in the United States — nominated little-known John W. Aiken of Chelsea, Massachusetts, for president at the party’s national convention at the Cornish Arms Hotel in New York City on this day in 1936.

The nation’s oldest nationally-organized radical party — a party that had fielded a ticket in every presidential election dating back to 1892 — had an eloquent spokesman in Aiken, a scholarly and passionate advocate for socialism who headed the party’s ticket in 1936 and again in 1940.

Aiken joined the SLP at an early age and — as it turned out — quite by accident, discovering the party as a sixteen-year-old when a copy of The People, the party’s official newspaper, which was then edited by Daniel De Leon, blew into his front yard in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  Hoping to find comic strips, Aiken picked it up and read it closely.  He liked what he read and wrote to the party’s headquarters in New York asking for literature, becoming a party member shortly thereafter.

Within a decade, Aiken was running for statewide office on the party’s ticket.  He kept running for the next quarter of a century, his high-water mark arguably occurring during the razor-thin 1930 Massachusetts gubernatorial contest when he nearly polled the difference between his major-party rivals while outdistancing economist and lawyer Alfred Baker Lewis, the Socialist Party’s wealthy and widely-recognized nominee, by nearly 6,400 votes. 

In his 1936 acceptance speech, the 40-year-old Aiken declared that he was seeking the highest office in the land on a “revolutionary” platform and had no interest in reforming the current economic system.  In his address to the forty-eight delegates in attendance, the bushy-haired Aiken also sharply criticized “the stupid reform programs” of the rival Socialist and Communist parties, whose modest and non-revolutionary proposals, he asserted, were “playing directly into the hands of capitalism by helping to save the system.”  Aiken concluded his extemporaneous remarks by urging the delegates to prepare for “the possibility of an imminent breakdown of the capitalist regime.”

A tall, slender and young-looking man with graying hair whose facial features were slightly overshadowed by an unusually high forehead, Aiken campaigned vigorously from coast to coast in the months following his nomination.  The son of a Boston shoemaker who quit school at the age of fourteen and took a low-paying job in a furniture factory, Aiken immediately took to the road, traveling across the United States in a used 1934 Chevrolet that he purchased shortly after winning his party’s nomination that spring. Herman Simon, a public schoolteacher from San Jose, California, accompanied Aiken on his nationwide tour, which included campaign stops in more than one hundred cities across the country.

A self-educated man who voraciously consumed the works of Marx and De Leon while studying anthropology, economics, history, law and sociology at night, Aiken was one of the party’s brightest members.  An artist and something of a romantic, he was as comfortable chatting in his thick Boston accent about the merits of Thomas Chippendale, the famous English cabinetmaker, or the simple style of U.S. furniture maker Duncan Phyfe, as he was in discussing the works of Karl Marx. 

He was also an extremely modest individual, a quiet man who kept largely to himself. In fact, when he died in virtual obscurity in December 1968 — five days before Socialist Norman M. Thomas passed away — his longtime neighbors in the East Hartford mobile home park in Connecticut where he had lived for nearly a decade had no idea that he had ever been involved in politics, let alone had twice sought the presidency.

“You’re kidding,” said the manager of the trailer park who had known Aiken for more than nine years when informed of his late tenant’s political past.  Even Aiken’s wife from whom he had been separated for a number of years wasn’t quite sure where he lived in the years preceding his death. But that’s the way the retired furniture finisher wanted it, requesting that no obituaries be published upon his death.

Despite his modesty, the Socialist Labor standard-bearer was determined to enhance his party’s prestige while broadening its appeal to the American electorate in 1936.  As such, he went to great lengths to distinguish the Socialist Labor Party, a “peaceably revolutionary” party, as he described it, from the more familiar Socialist and Communist parties, which he repeatedly criticized as “parties of reform, not of revolution.”

Unlike the SLP’s two rivals on the Left, Aiken insisted that his De Leonist party didn’t advocate half measures and adhered strictly to Marx’s economic doctrines.

Carefully tracing the development of the “contradictions bringing about the complete collapse of capitalism,” the little-known Socialist Labor candidate denounced FDR’s New Deal as “reactionary, and a menace to progress.”

Speaking at Lincoln Park in downtown Olean, New York, in early July, Aiken refuted the charge that the New Deal was a socialist program and questioned those who believed that Roosevelt was behaving like some sort of left-wing collectivist — a ludicrous charge, to be sure, yet strikingly similar to puerile right-wing Republicans accusing President Barack Obama of pushing a socialist agenda more than seven decades later.

“The Socialist Labor Party, the only political party of genuine socialism in America, authoritatively denies the charges,” Aiken told his audience.  “As a matter of fact,” he continued, “the most insidious and dangerous tendency in the last decade and especially under Roosevelt has been the trend toward government control and monopoly.  We know this has been done in a futile attempt to strengthen the capitalist system, but at the same time we recognize it as a mask behind which fascism invariably conceals and organizes itself.  Let it be plainly understood that the goal of American socialism is an industrial democracy, not a political autocracy, either as a first or last step.”

Many of those singing the praises of “rugged individualism” and “free competition” while professing a great reverence for the Constitution, continued Aiken, could hardly be depended upon to stand against the forces of reaction.  “Should the working class indicate a desire to abolish the capitalist system and institute a Socialist Republic, those who prate so loudly in defense of our liberties would not hesitate to support a despotic capitalist regime,” he argued.  They love liberty in the abstract, but would have none of it for the masses, he continued, adding that fascism would be the last line of defense for the institution of private property. 

“Thus it is that New Dealers and their Republican opponents may yet find a common program,” he concluded.

A father of six who served as a sergeant in the army Motor Transport Corps during World War I and later as a local union official in the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America, Aiken insisted throughout the campaign that the economic crisis facing the country was hardly a temporary situation from which the American people would soon recover.

The Great Depression, he asserted, had made the country “a gigantic poorhouse,” one in which millions of able-bodied Americans were reduced to “mendicants, supplicants for a handout to keep body and soul together.  History’s pages,” he charged, will “record no greater disgrace than this.”

In keeping with his party’s motto that “Capitalism Must Be Destroyed,” the erudite Socialist Labor nominee explained that the free enterprise system was the culprit, the primary reason millions of Americans were needlessly suffering as a result of the Great Depression.

“The crisis of today is not a temporary one from which ultimately we will pass into a condition of recovery,” he explained in the tone of a philosopher, “nor is this or that institution of capitalism responsible for the existing situation.  It is capitalism — the profit system, itself — which has broken down, and in obedience to the laws of its own existence. Failure to appreciate this leads to wild attempts at tinkering with the effects of the system.”

Aiken envisioned the day when the American people would live in a world governed by cooperation, not competition.

In his quiet, scholarly manner, Aiken, who always spoke calmly and fluently, apparently delighted in telling his audiences that he intended to resign from the presidency as soon as he was elected.

Speaking in San Francisco in late September, the hardwood finisher-turned-politician declared that once the Socialist Labor Party achieved victory at the ballot box, “it would pass over to the workers the actual management of the nation’s affairs.”

He couldn’t have been more serious.  “All authority would be in the hands of the workers,” he declared.  “They would elect their foremen and managers and would elect delegates to an industrial congress that would take the place of the present Congress. Representation would not be by territories, but by industries,” he continued.  According to Aiken, the entire governmental machinery would be abolished and would be succeeded by a workers’ industrial state.

‘Socialists and Communists Fooled by Roosevelt’

In September, Aiken accused the Communist Party’s Earl Browder of essentially supporting FDR’s re-election.  “Earl Browder recently declared that [Alf] Landon must be stopped at all costs,” he said while campaigning in St. Louis.  “The only logical man to stop him is Roosevelt.  Consequently, Browder’s stance is substantially an endorsement of Roosevelt.”  Speaking in Kansas City later that same evening, the Socialist Labor Party nominee extended his critique to include the Socialist Party, saying that both the Communists and the Socialists “have been taken in by the clever politician in the White House.  We are being treated to the interesting spectacle of seeing Communists and Socialists supporting an avowed capitalist,” he told his small audience.

Arguing that Thomas and Browder had substantially endorsed Roosevelt by attacking Governor Landon as a reactionary, the Socialist Labor nominee said that Landon was only part of the problem contending that “Fascism often creeps in under the cloak of ‘liberalism.’”

Aiken charged that the Communist Party's Earl Browder (pictured above) and Socialist Norman Thomas were merely offering reforms to save the capitalist system .

Elaborating on his opponents during a campaign stop in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier, Aiken also criticized Father Coughlin’s Union Party, suggesting that it was a product of the froth and unrest generated by the economic uncertainty of the Great Depression.  Earlier in the year, he had denounced the followers of Coughlin and Townsend as “dreamers,” desperate and politically naïve men and women hoping to find a panacea for the nation’s ills in the third-party movement sponsored by the controversial priest from Royal Oak.

Aiken, who made several national radio addresses during the campaign, attracted his largest audience when he participated in a widely-publicized presidential forum sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune on September 23.   The forum, which featured a rare appearance by former President Herbert Hoover, representing the GOP, and messages broadcast from FDR and Republican rival Alf Landon, included most of the minor-party candidates for president.

Proclaiming that the Socialist Labor Party was the only party true to the principles of Karl Marx, Aiken said that capitalism wasn’t capable of dealing with massive joblessness and had to be replaced. “The most liberal unemployment insurance law imaginable would not solve the jobless problem,” he asserted.  “There can be no solution for the present crisis within the existing social order, a crisis which inevitably intensifies due to the contradictions engendered by production for profit.”

Following remarks by the Communist Party’s Earl Browder and Socialist Norman Thomas, in which both men sharply attacked the Hearst newspaper chain and debated the issues of fascism versus democracy, the low-key and unassuming Aiken took advantage of the opportunity to make his party’s case. 

“The Socialist Labor Party,” he said calmly, “proposes to use the ballot box for the purpose of determining the right of the working class to collectively own, as it now operates, all the means of production.”  He then explained that workers in the various industries, organized in integral industrial unions, would take over the day-to-day management of the nation’s affairs if and when the Socialist Labor Party came to power and that “an industrial administration, planning and coordinating production would take the place of our present political government.”

The SLP standard-bearer then stated his concerns about what might happen in the unlikely event the he and his running mate were swept into office in a tidal wave of discontent on November 3.  “Recognizing the possibility of the present ruling class refusing to abide by the clearly expressed desire of the majority at the ballot box for the abolition of the capitalist system, recognizing that the attempt may be made to defeat the working class and suppress the revolution by violence and bloodshed,” Aiken urged workers across the country “to organize into genuine Socialist industrial unions to enforce the decision made at the ballot box.”

Visiting nearly every SLP section in the country, the advocate of De Leonism climaxed a tour of the West Coast with a stop in Bend, Oregon, in late August where he commemorated the late Frank T. Johns, one of the party’s most popular figures and its presidential nominee in 1924 and 1928.  The 39-year-old Johns, a Portland carpenter, drowned during the latter campaign while heroically trying to save a twelve-year-old boy who had fallen into the swift waters of the Deschutes River.

The Socialist Labor ticket qualified for the ballot in nineteen states in 1936, but was arbitrarily knocked off the ballot in New York, the party’s stronghold, on a flimsy technicality that enabled the newly-formed American Labor Party (ALP) — specifically created to support Roosevelt’s re-election that year — to appear on the ballot in the country’s most populous state.  Since New York’s election law prohibited any two parties from using the same word in their names, the appearance of the “Social Labor Party” — the party’s actual designation in the Empire State during this period — would have prevented the ALP from qualifying for the ballot that autumn. 

The technicality, which involved duplicate signatures on the SLP and American Labor Party nominating petitions, resulted in the lower courts tossing out twenty-three signatures from Putnam County, thereby leaving the SLP nine signatures short of the required minimum of fifty signatures in each county.  Incredibly, nearly two dozen voters in that scenic county had apparently signed both petitions.  In upholding the lower court ruling, the New York Appellate Court willfully ignored the Socialist Labor Party’s contention that its petitions had been circulated in June, two months before the American Labor Party began collecting signatures in that county.

Dishearteningly, it was the first presidential election since 1888 that the SLP didn’t appear on the ballot in New York, a state that provided nearly a third of the party’s presidential total four years earlier.

While the Socialist Labor Party certainly hoped to improve upon the 34,000 votes garnered by Verne L. Reynolds, the party’s nominee in 1932, Aiken was realistic about his chances.  Though somewhat confident that his candidacy had generated increased interest in the party of Daniel De Leon, especially among members of the working class, he also realized that an electoral victory wasn’t on the horizon.  Building the party was his primary objective.

“I find that labor is taking a keener interest in politics than it did four years ago,” he said during a campaign stop in Oakland, California, in early September, “and our party is making a steady growth.”  In his view, that was an accomplishment in and of itself.

“If our message is unheeded and the Reaction is victorious, never can it be said of the Socialist Labor Party that it…failed at this historic hour to keep alive the revolutionary spirit,” said the little-remembered Aiken as the campaign drew to a close.

Competing against Father Coughlin’s fledgling Union Party, a movement that appealed to thousands of disaffected voters on both ends of the political spectrum, not to mention the enormous personal popularity of the Socialist Party’s Norman M. Thomas, who was waging his third consecutive campaign for the presidency, Aiken knew that votes for the SLP would probably be few and far between.

They were.  The little-remembered Aiken finished a distant seventh in the balloting, polling a dismal 12,790 votes nationally — a tiny sliver of the 892,000 votes garnered by the Union Party’s William Lemke and only a small fraction of the 187,000 votes cast for Socialist Norman Thomas and the 79,000 votes tallied by the Communist Party‘s Earl Browder.

Nobody remembers Aiken’s bids for the White House during the Great Depression — and that’s just the way he would have wanted it.

Excerpted from Darcy G. Richardson’s forthcoming book, “Others: Third Parties during the Great Depression.”


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