Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954



Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989) by Gerald Meyer is the first study which fully explores the Marcantonio phenomenon, that is, his unique status as a radical who despite massive opposition held on to high public office. Marcantonio represented East Harlem for fourteen years (1934-36, 1938-50) in Congress. There he provided leadership for civil rights legislation, acted as de facto congressman for Puerto Rico, and led what ultimately became a one-man fight against the Cold War and McCarthyism. He became the leader of the most important third party in the United States, the American Labor Party, and achieved national stature as the spokesman for the Left.

This work calls into question a number of truisms of American History. Marcantonio's electoral success contradicts the assumption that a radical can only be elected under very special circumstances and then must either join the mainstream or be defeated. Mainstream historiography presents machine politics as nonideological and conservative. However, Marcantonio controlled the most efficient and elaborate political machine in New York City. As a result of the intense electioneering activity and the unparalleled provision of services to his constituents, East Harlem had the highest voter turnout of any district in New York City.

But it is the study of Marcantonio's constituencies that raises even wider questions. Marcantonio's major electoral base was Italian Harlem, yet in this period Italo-Americans are generally perceived as politically conservative and apathetic. His other electoral base was El Barrio, East Harlem's Puerto Rican community--the only place where the American Labor Party achieved first-party status. This work shows Puerto Ricans not just as victims of discrimination, but as conscious participants in a historic political movement.

While not a Communist, Marcantonio was closely allied, ideologically and organizationally, with the Communist Party. This work examines closely the nature of this relationship and reveals that the Party was an essential element in Marcantonio's successes. This in turn shows ways that the Party contributed to American reality which are not often acknowledged.

Lastly, Marcantonio belies the myth that those from the immigrant poor who attained higher education must "rise" above their origins. When he died, his residence was four blocks from where he was born. He had never made a home outside of the heart of what was in this period the largest of the Little Italies and which has been described as the most Italian of the Italian communities. He was not the stereotypical alienated intellectual, but someone who reveled in serving as a type of a Godfather "fixing" the people's problems and enjoying their loyalty and respect.

Increasingly vilified in the press, hounded by opposition--his district was gerrymandered, election laws were changed to defeat him--in 1950 a coalition candidate of the Democratic, Republican, and Liberal Parties defeated him. All during this time the FBI collected a six-thousand-item dossier on him. After falling dead in the street on August 8, 1954, he was denied a Catholic burial. But on August 12th, the day of his burial, as they always had for his elections, all of East Harlem came out for Marcantonio.

Dead at fifty-one, his estate was valued at less than ten thousand dollars. Yet he had done something no other left politician had managed to do: mobilized the alienated poor behind an openly radical program. As a result, for those years there was in the United States Congress at least one vote and one very articulate voice for left politics.

by Gerald Meyer PhD