Vito Marcantonio’s Continuing Relevance
This book examines the career of one of America’s most successful radical leaders, East Harlem’s seven-term representative to the US Congress, Vito Marcantonio.1 Now in its fourth printing, Meyer’s biography remains an important document indispensable to anyone seeking to create a stable and continuing presence for the Left in electoral politics in the United States. Using interviews, election records, and Marcantonio’s personal papers, Meyer narrates the underlying conditions and specific actions which contributed to the long-term success of this most radical of elected US politicians – including his links with the Communist Party downplayed by previous biographers. Meyer shows that right up until his untimely death in 1954, just steps from New York City Hall, Marcantonio led a political force based on both personal community ties and his association with highly organized radical activist groups. Those seeking a model of a highly successful leftist politician will find one in Meyer’s account of the political organization created by Vito Marcantonio.
Marcantonio was effective in pressing issues important to the working-class, immigrant, minority community he represented, as well as being a voice of opposition to a wide range of right-wing policies, both foreign and domestic. Marcantonio was an important spokesman for the Left, agilely using parliamentary maneuvers and his excellent rhetorical skills (aptly displayed in the Annette Rubinstein-edited collection of his speeches, I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches, and Writings of Vito Marcantonio). Meyer notes how “as a lone individual, Marcantonio shook the complacent House” (61). During times reminiscent of today, when both parties pushed a disastrous foreign policy, Marcantonio offered a compelling, if solitary, voice of opposition to a nationwide audience. Decades before the contradictions of the Viet Nam war and the Great Society were laid bare, Marcantonio made clear on the floor of the House of Representatives that a “policy of Empire negates progress at home” (63). This concept, silenced by decades of McCarthyism, was only to be forced back into the nation’s consciousness when, following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, his Poor People’s Campaign arrived in Washington, DC.
Marcantonio was a rarity not just in that he anticipated these insights from a lectern in the US Capitol, but that he did so for over 14 years while consistently moving more to the left. Radicals had been elected to high office before, generally, as Meyer notes, swept into office for one term on a wave of populist or progressive sentiment. Marcantonio, though,took on opponent after opponent from both major parties, winning seven important victories in a variety of political environments – all with the major media repeatedly calling for his ouster. Meyer’s examination helps us to understand the keys to Marcantonio’s success: his organic relationship with the East Harlem community, his personal charisma, and the support of the Communist Party. These three forces came together under the aegis of the American Labor Party (ALP), which would become the congressman’s most important electoral vehicle.
Initially, the American Labor Party took a form that has an analogue in today’s Working Families Party (WFP). Formed in 1936 by centrist unions with the blessing and cooperation of President Franklin Roosevelt, the ALP, like today’s WFP, initially focused on endorsing the more progressive Republican and Democratic candidates instead of offering its own. The ALP offered them campaign funding and access to union-staffed canvasses and phone banking. Though not an avowedly socialist party, it did espouse a class consciousness that spoke to a more radical constituency than did the Democrats. Its third-party status allowed it its own line on city and state ballots, which it leveraged through its endorsements in different contests. Marcantonio turned this to his own advantage by running on multiple party lines, eventually “contest[ing] nine Congressional elections under the banner of five political parties.” Though the ALP had a city and state-wide presence, its primary focus as an ideologically-driven party was electing a spokesperson to a prominent position. For that reason,the re-election of Marcantonio, the party’s best orator and strongest candidate, became its focus. Even without such a high-profile personality, the ALP probably would have focused on East Harlem, an area where its appeal to left-leaning, newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrants and anti-Tammany Hall Italian residents gave it a special advantage. Over time, and especially with the emergence of the Communist-led Popular Front during the Second World War, the ALP began to move to the left; in its 1944 primary, it pushed out its right wing and empowered its Communist-leaning component.
Though Marcantonio was not a member of the Communist Party (a fact he often made clear in his campaign literature), Meyer shows that the CPUSA’s financial and organizational support was a major a factor in his success. Marcantonio did not shy away from either appearing in public with its leadership or declaring sympathy with its viewpoint. Meyer notes that Marcantonio publicly stated, “If they call what I stand for Communism, then let me be called a communist” (70). The Party became the underlying structure which, through its connections with labor unions and community, professional, and cultural organizations, offered Marcantonio the resources he needed to reach out and effectively serve his constituents in East Harlem. Reprinting a 1949 memo, Meyer shows the involvement of over three hundred union staff, as well as payment by these same unions for printing literature, newspaper ads, and radio broadcasts. Meyer notes the “extensive positive coverage” Marcantonio received in the trade-union and Communist press, which countered the attacks made against him in major newspapers. When Marcantonio lost his seat to a Democratic challenger in 1936 and was out of Congress for two years, his leadership of Communist-aligned organizations such as International Workers Order, International Labor Defense, The Workers’ Alliance, and the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born “involved him in many issues and campaigns that attracted widespread publicity” (57). In return, he gave these organizations his leadership skills and used his national platform to advance the cause of civil and workers’ rights, peace, and anti-imperialism.
Meyer also examines the other pillar of Marcantonio’s success – his close lifelong ties to his East Harlem neighbors. “Our Marc” earned the trust even of those who did not share his political views. He was protected from the charges of what were perceived as “outsiders” in the media demonizing a local son. As would later be done by organizations like the fraudulently attacked ACORN or certain components of Occupy Wall Street (specifically Occupy Sandy), Marcantonio held an open office, greeting each of his constituents personally and, as reported in the media at the time, “insisted almost fanatically that no constituent, however lowly or troublesome, get the kiss off” (94). As a representative of poor, immigrant constituents, Marcantonio came into direct contact with their acute suffering and need. His office records show that he attempted to address each of their problems, “satisfy[ing] many of these requests from his own pocket” (93). Meyer points out that though these personal interventions were never accompanied by crass campaign promotion, Marcantonio’s concern and care was indeed repaid with an ever increasing voter turnout among his supporters.
Marcantonio could not have achieved such a high level of success without the resources of the Communist Party and the devotion of his constituents. It’s no coincidence that when the vicious attacks of McCarthyism finally eroded the power of the CP, Marcantonio’s political fortunes also receded.
We are today reaping the consequences of Marcantonio’s downfall. All he fought against seems to have come to fruition, while those forces that made him a success seem long gone. Media consolidation and corporate domination have taken hold. Labor unions, under constant attack, have become diminished and self-absorbed. If there is one factor today that limits the creation of a political force based on Marcantonio’s model, it is the lack of a national organization that can coordinate between like-minded groups and provide radical leftists with the funding and the highly trained individuals needed to win electoral campaigns and other battles. Could the various constituent sections of Occupy Wall Street take on this role? Not without a great appetite for putting together a national and international organization like the one that made the CPUSA so powerful.
The path which Marcantonio trod to political success – community service and radical leadership – must be revived today. The times call for a politician like Marcantonio, and Meyer’s book reminds us of what must be done to make this possible.
Reviewed by David Giglio
The Vito Marcantonio Forum
Rockaway Park, NY
1. Marcantonio was first elected to Congress in 1934. He subsequently won every election in his district from 1938 to 1950.