Ohio History Journal

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The Ohio "Farmer-Labor"

Movement in the 1930s



Throughout the 1930s a generation of American radicals sought un-

successfully to build a viable third party on the considerable political

terrain that lay to the left of the New Deal coalition. Their failure in the

greatest of all American depressions has long been accounted either a

tribute to the resiliency of the two-party system and the political skill of

Franklin Roosevelt, or a confirmation of the utopian, chiliastic character

of much that has gone by the name of American radicalism. Such ex-

planations have their power, but they often fail to come to grips with

the concrete political and social context that makes understandable the

impotence of the left in the states and localities where such third party

efforts were actually tried and abandoned.

Perhaps the oldest idea for a third party was that of a farmer-labor

coalition, and in 1933 the foremost advocate of such a political grouping

was Thomas Amlie, a 36-year-old Wisconsin congressman and former

Non-Partisan League organizer. Described by the radical monthly Com-

mon Sense as the "life of the Third Party movement in this country,"

Amlie was one of the chief sponsors of a September 1933 Chicago con-

ference of trade unionists, left-wing intellectuals and Progressive

agrarians that organized the Farmer Labor Political Federation.1 Be-

cause Amlie thought the New Deal doomed to failure, he expected to

quickly recruit large numbers of discontented agrarians and laborers to

his Farmer-Labor party. He hoped this party would emerge in time for

the 1934 state and congressional elections, or at the latest, become a

national force prior to the 1936 presidential contest.

Amlie called for a third party on the grounds that both Republicans

and Democrats, even the most liberal New Deal Democrats, subscribed

to economic theories and practices that had precipitated the Great

Depression and then needlessly prolonged it. Moreover, he denounced

those New Deal programs which cut back farm production and, in




Hugh T. Lovin is Professor of History at Boise State University.


1. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval (Boston,

1960), 145.