Revolutionaries in the 1950s

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

Tim Wohlforth

I BECAME A SOCIALIST in 1953, right at the height of McCarthyism and at the lowest ebb that the American socialist movement had ever experienced. I was won to socialism by a group, the Shachtmanites, whose intellectual vitality made up for what they clearly lacked in numbers. The Shachtmanites were the dissidents of the dissidents, the uncompromising defenders of democracy in a world dominated by totalitarianism and in a period when the left itself was by no means untouched by totalitarian thought and practice.

The Shachtman group, the Independent Socialist League (ISL), were descendants of the American Trotskyist movement of the 1930s. Max Shachtman had been one of the founders in 1928, along with James P. Cannon, of the movement.(1) They based themselves on Trotsky’s criticisms of the lack of democracy within the Soviet Union as well as his views of Stalin’s deviations from a Leninist world revolutionary strategy.

Certainly when contrasted to Trotsky’s failures in Europe, the American group, which became known as the Socialist Workers Party, enjoyed a degree of prosperity in the late1930s. The group had quite a few working-class members and was not without influence in the trade-union movement. It was particularly proud of its leadership of the Teamsters’ strike in Minneapolis in 1934.(2)

The Shachtman group, however, evolved mainly out of the intellectual stratum within the group. Trotskyism’s blend of Communist orthodoxy and utopian vision, with a credible explanation of Communism’s increasingly evident perversions of that vision as expressed particularly in the Moscow Trials, had an appeal for a significant minority of intellectuals. Its supporters for various periods of time included James Burnham, professor of philosophy at New York University; Sidney Hook; Max Eastman; George Novack; the writers James T. Farrell and Saul Bellow; Philip Rahv and William Phillips, the editors of Partisan Review; their friend, Dwight MacDonald; the poets John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan; and the future member of the Fortune editorial board, Herbert Solow.(3) Young intellectuals like Irving Howe, Irving Kristol and Hal Draper were coming out of the student milieu.

Max Shachtman broke with Trotsky in 1940 over the nature of the Soviet Union.(4) Trotsky, while a harsh critic of the Soviet bureaucracy, still insisted that the Soviet Union had to be considered a “workers’ state,” and, as such, it should be defended by the left against imperialism. Shachtman refused to defend the USSR under the conditions of its occupation of half of Poland and the war then going on in Finland. Shortly after his break with Trotsky, Shachtman developed his own theory, “bureaucratic collectivism,” which held that the USSR was a new class society.(5)

When I stumbled upon the group in 1953, it had been passing through difficult times, politically evolving along a path parallel to that of the far larger liberal intellectual community. Immediately after the split with Trotsky, James Burnham left, breaking with Marxism in the process and beginning work on his book, The Managerial Revolution (1941). In the postwar period Burnham joined William Buckley on the staff of the conservative journal National Review.

A year later Dwight MacDonald left and in 1944 began publishing his maverick semi-anarchist journal Politics.(6) In 1952 Irving Howe left to publish Dissent magazine, which promoted a socialist vision quite similar to Shachtman’s but with a non-party slant and anticipating by a few years Shachtman’s own right-wing evolution. Partisan Review and the intellectuals around that publication moved even further away from Trotskyism.(7) Individuals like Irving Kristol have become “neo-conservatives,” who bring to that political position some elements of thinking that go back to the original Shachtman tendency.(8)

The Shachtman group itself was in a process of political flux. It had evolved over the years further and further away from its Trotskyist communist origins in the direction of social-democratic and liberal politics. The Cold War atmosphere had affected its thinking, which was becoming more stridently anti-Communist than it was anti-imperialist.

Yet the pull of the past still affected it. It was uncomfortable with its past yet not quite ready for the political leap it would soon take into the American mainstream. This makes the grouping in the 1950s historically interesting but quite confusing to its members at the time. I was aware of none of this when I first came across the group as a sophomore at Oberlin College in Ohio. To me they were the socialists.

Enter the Socialists

It was in the fall of 1953 that the socialists came to Oberlin. In that period this was quite an event and many turned out to hear them out of curiosity alone. We were graced with two socialists-Scott Arden and Bogden Denitch-from the newly formed Young Socialist League (YSL).(9)

Neither I, nor anyone else at Oberlin College had ever heard of the group. The group’s membership was over 100 which, in the dark days of McCarthyism, made it the largest socialist youth organization in the United States. In fact I believe it was the only socialist youth organization outside of the Communist Party’s Labor Youth League (LYL), which, with only two campus branches, was almost defunct.

The YSL was vaguely in the Trotskyist tradition, heavily influenced by veteran Trotskyist leader Max Shachtman. This gave Denitch and Arden a rather attractive political coloration: very militant and critical of American society and foreign policy, yet committed to democracy and just as critical of the Soviet Union.

These socialists, for all the small size of their organization and sectarian background, made a big splash. Some 200 students turned out to hear them at the First Congregational Church. They said that the world was divided into two imperialist camps, one headed by the Soviet Union and the other by the United States. They opposed to the two-camp theory the notion of a “third camp” made up of the colonial countries and the workers of all countries. U.S. foreign policy, they maintained, was antidemocratic, propped up dictatorships around the world and opposed social progress everywhere. It therefore offered no real alternative to Soviet imperialism.

The U.S. economy had pulled out of the Depression only by rearming and entering World War II. It avoided a threatened post-war slump through increasing armaments during the Cold War. We now lived under a “permanent war economy.” If we wished peace and disarmament, that could only be achieved on the basis of a socialist society. They were socialists but they were not communists. Socialism in their view was the logical extension, the full development of democracy.

The speakers were challenged from the floor by two professors from the college who had worked for the government under the Truman administration. They defended the basic outlines of U.S. foreign policy as necessary to combat the dangers of communism while challenging the thesis that the American economy was dependent on war industries for its prosperity. Denitch and Arden immediately challenged the two professors to a debate–a summons they could hardly refuse in front of an audience of 200 students.

The debate the next evening went over the same basic points. The professors were in trouble from the beginning, since, as advisors to the previous government, they were forced to defend almost all actions of that government in the mounting cold war. At the same time they were sincere liberals, not cynical politicians, and they continually tripped over their liberal convictions as they followed a line of real politic.

Arden and Denitch were skilled debaters with years of experience in the socialist movement. They knew absolutely nothing about economics and their theory of the permanent war economy was, I would learn many years later, a one-sided explanation of the post-war boom. Yet these limitations did not hamper them and–at least as I remember the event–they creamed the professors. Nothing pleases a student more than to see his professors have their heads handed to them; the audience was with the socialists.

Bogden Denitch painted a colorful and somewhat exaggerated picture of the Young Socialist League. He gave an astounding interview to the college newspaper. He stated the YSL’s membership as “under 30,000” and went into great detail about a “training school” the YSL ran to tum out machinists to invade industry and form socialist cells to challenge the conservative union bureaucracy. The newspaper painted it as a big Red Plot. I found out the truth a couple of years later when I turned up in New York City and needed a job. Two older comrades, Herman Benson (Ben Hall)(10) and Julius Jacobson (Julius Falk)(11), had a small machine-shop business. If you pleaded with them enough they would give you a fifteen-minute lesson in running an automatic screw machine. Luckily their instruction was rather inadequate and I never had to work in industry.

About a dozen of us met with Arden and Denitch and decided to organize our own socialist club on campus. We called it the Eugene V. Debs Club, after the famous early leader of American socialism.(12)

It was not formally affiliated with the YSL but it reflected the YSL’s political outlook and, in time, three or four of us joined the YSL. The club was quite broad and included some students whose politics were closer to the Communist Party than to our stridently anti-Communist radical socialism. One thing we all agreed on was a deep hostility to McCarthyism. The struggle against McCarthyism became a struggle for the survival of the club itself.

We sponsored several speakers reflecting the more anti-Communist (we always used the word “Stalinist”) political viewpoint of the YSL. Two stood out: B.J. Widick and Max Shachtman himself. Widick was working at the time in an auto plant in Detroit. He had written a very good book on the United Auto Workers (UAW)(13) and followed this union for Labor Action, the paper of Shachtman’s group, the Independent Socialist League (ISL). More recently he has written on labor for The Nation.

Widick’s topic was “The Intellectuals & the Labor Movement” Just before the meeting a student came up to me to explain that his father, a professor from Akron, urged him to come to the meeting. This fellow’s father had heard Widick speak in the middle of the 1930s sit-down strike that organized the rubber industry. Widick had given a fiery speech that visualized sit-downs spreading through American industry, an insurrection being carried out, and a Soviet America constructed on the basis of these plant occupations.

You can imagine the shock of the student when he heard Widick, now a veteran of more than twenty years of a bureaucratized union movement, speaking during the low point in the history of American socialism. Widick’s lecture was devoted to discouraging intellectuals from seeking jobs within the trade-union apparatus. “The bureaucrats will corrupt you. They do not want ideas or social progress. They just want to preserve their own political machines.” Widick, an honest man, spoke the truth. But he did not make many recruits for our struggling Eugene V. Debs Club.

One day Max Shachtman showed up in a beat-up old Chevy driven by his wife, Yetta. He was on a national tour of what was left of his organization. Oberlin was the high point of the tour. I was immediately struck by Shachtman’s appearance–the fierce anti-Communist socialist looked to me exactly like Nikita Khrushchev! He was a Russian-looking fellow with a large balding head. He was a product of the Russian-Jewish New York City working class and spoke in its traditions.

He was exceedingly long-winded and could go on and on about any topic. But he was always interesting and extremely witty. Typically, in the middle of a speech, he would go into a lengthy Jewish or Russian folk parable and then use it to illustrate a point in contemporary politics. About sixty people turned out to hear him—a good crowd in those days–and for an hour and a half he gave them a non-stop entertaining performance.

I had embraced socialism quickly, with little resistance, and had thrown my energies fully into spreading socialist ideas through the Eugene V. Debs Club. Prior to meeting the socialists I had already developed on my own a radical, critical assessment of American life. I was pro-labor, deeply sympathetic to the underdog in American society, disturbed by the undemocratic and warlike character of American foreign policy, and shaken by the effects of McCarthyism on the principles of fair play and freedom I believed in. While I had been brought up in an atmosphere of sympathy toward the Soviet Union, I, like many liberals, had become increasingly critical of the USSR’s conduct-especially in relation to East Europe.

We in the YSL saw socialism as the extension of democracy into the economic sphere so that industries were controlled by those who worked in them. This would not only increase the democratic control of the ordinary person, but would take away the unfair advantage large economic holdings give to wealthy individuals to undermine the democratic process. At the same time socialism seemed to us to be a fairer society with incomes more equally distributed. Thus I passed easily from a democratic liberal into a democratic socialist. It was much later that I would have to try to square this democratic vision with the theoretical complexities of vanguards, democratic centralism and dictatorships of the proletariat.

Not only did socialism seem to us to be a better system, but the idea gained a necessity particularly from a critique of American foreign policy. We saw the United States acting throughout the world in support of reactionary governments: those of Chiang Kai-Shek in Taiwan, Franco in Spain and a series of petty tyrants in Latin America. At the same time it had built up a huge nuclear arsenal and seemed uninterested in seriously negotiating its reduction.

This practice of the United States provided us with sufficient evidence to convince us that it was acting as an imperialist power. We then applied the Marxist theory of imperialism and the state to the United States, which proved to us that the United States had to act as it did as long as it remained capitalist Worldwide economic interest required it. This meant that both world peace and progress toward democracy and development in the colonial world required opposition to capitalism in the United States. This very same thinking process, which in the 1950s affected only a few, would influence hundreds of thousands of students in the next decade.

I must mention the appeal of Marxism itself. It represented a wonderful combination of idealism, of belief in a utopian vision of a better way for human beings to live, with an intellectually rigorous and useful method for understanding history. Historical materialism had a marvelous quality of placing you in history and presenting that history in such a manner that its overall development made sense. It became more than a series of facts, personalities and events. Marx had done for human history what Darwin had accomplished in his theory of the evolution of species. I still remember the genuine intellectual excitement of reading a book like Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Positively Fourteenth Street

In June 1955 I left Oberlin College and headed for the “political center.” My first act after arriving in New York City was, of course, to go to the “headquarters,” the nerve center of Max Shachtman’s political empire, housing both the adult group, The ISL, and its youth group, the YSL. This turned out to be the third floor at 114 West 14th Street in downtown New York.

The building was not easy to find. I walked past it twice before I spied it sandwiched between a couple of cut-rate stores just down from the corner of Sixth Avenue in the Seventh Avenue direction. It was usually identified by the Smith’s Bar on the corner, which in those days still served a sickeningly salty free lunch. For 55 cents, however, a really nice thick roast beef on a roll was available. By coincidence, when I later shifted my allegiance to Shachtman’s rival, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), that headquarters was across from another Smith’s Bar.

I walked up dark dusty stairs past the second-story loft devoted to some obscure and not very prosperous aspect of the garment trade. In two-and-a-half years of going up and down those stairs almost daily I never saw a single human being enter this loft. Business on the third floor was a bit better-but not by much. I found myself in a small hall, which could seat sixty or so people and which clearly had not been painted since the Shachtman group moved into the place in 1940.

As you moved toward the back you passed a room stuffed with old volumes of the party newspaper, Labor Action, as well as an antiquated hand-operated addressograph machine. Next came a couple of cubbyholes serving as offices for the “national staff” of the ISL and YSL. Somewhere in the midst of all this must have been a bathroom.

The place had a depressing atmosphere, which struck me that first day in 1955. At Oberlin, politics had been lively–despite the pressures of McCarthyism we always had an audience–so it was easy to maintain optimism. Here the very documents that had excited us out in Ohio’s corn fields lay around covered with dust. You could not remove the musty odor from your nostrils. Those walls: were they originally grey or green or perhaps blue? Or were they the color all lofts in New York City become regardless of what is first put on the surfaces? The street below teemed with people-shopping, going to work, going home. That vitality, however, did not make it up the two flights to the headquarters.

The feeling of belonging to a past totally disconnected from present-day life in the United States could not be avoided on the third floor of 114 West 14 Street. We tried tenaciously to touch in some fashion our own times. Our suffering was not self-inflicted; our times simply had no room for us. Over the next ten years most of us who sat around in that dusty hall, traveling by different roads, would become a part of a meaningful left in the United States. I sincerely believe we affected the left of the ’60s. Yet, in 1955, that future was not yet present.

One of the back cubbyholes contained Gordon Haskell who did all the little things that maintain an organization. He did them well and efficiently in the little time he had available because the party had no funds to pay him for full-time work.(14)

Gordon shared his cubbyhole with Hal Draper, the editor of Labor Action. Hal didn’t need much space as he also had a small office for editing at the print shop. Hal Draper, a forceful personality, had the capability of conducting serious research and study and was continually developing new ideas. He could also write fast and well. In all my experience on the left, as well as later in the commercial world of editorial writing, Hal is the only person I came across who single-handedly put out a weekly paper. There were issues where he accomplished this by writing most of it himself.(15)

Most socialist newspapers are written by intellectuals “for workers.” The result usually was a product that bored the former without enticing the latter. Labor Action did not fit this mold. It was written by intellectuals for intellectuals, including intellectually inclined workers. The result was a paper not always “correct”–rarely correct as I now look back at it–but always interesting. I discovered this at Oberlin where I distributed my little bundle of fifty papers each week to a growing group of regular readers.

Since the Shachtmanites, at least in theory, rejected support of any sort for either the American camp–which they considered capitalist and imperialist–or the Russian camp-which they considered bureaucratic collectivist and equally imperialist–they sought a “third camp” that they could support. This camp was seen as made up of the working class of all nations and the colonial revolution.

It was rare indeed in this period to find these forces expressing themselves independently of the American-Russian confrontation. Labor Action was devoted to the task of finding the “third camp” somewhere in an increasingly bipolarized world. This was no simple task in 1955; it required ingenuity, imagination and a dose of self-deception.

Hal found a promising group of “third campers” in a splinter Italian socialist party that had a rather large following in the city of Trieste. However, in time, it was discovered that the group was being subsidized by Tito, whose regime did not fit the Shachtmanite conception of democratic socialism.

Labor Action‘s problem was most sharply posed in Vietnam. The Communists were installed in the North and the Diem regime in the South was rapidly falling under American control. Labor Action, in good conscience, could embrace neither the North nor the South. Then Hal discovered two religious-military sects, the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao.(16) These two formations were definitely battling away at the Communists and at the Catholic-oriented Diem regime. The only problem was with what these groups were battling for: their own semi-feudal fiefdoms.

I, along with my wife Martha, accepted the task of putting out the mailing each week for the Friday Night Forum. We sent out our leaflets to fifty or so people and each week fifteen or twenty would assemble in that dreary hall to hear one of our people lecture on some topic of the day. Unfortunately, they were almost all members; it was the convinced talking to the convinced. At one of our very first forums a young fellow came up to us and introduced himself: “I’m Mike Shute. I am the contact.” We lost that contact six months later when he became a member.

The Saturday Night Social–held perhaps once a month–was a little better. I can remember my first one held in the same hall only slightly improved by dim lighting. A person sat at the door taking the small admission charge and beer was being served in a comer. The hall was barely filled with dusters of people talking excitedly about various political points or just catching up on gossip. The crowd contained more with older members who had learned through the years to avoid the dull forums, turning up to keep in touch with old friends.

Then Hal Draper walked in with his wife Anne who was wearing, as she did indoors and out and on all occasions, a hat. Anne was the very opposite of Hal-vivacious, open, warm. For years Anne had represented a group of workers who made women’s hats. These workers, predominantly immigrant males, adored their female and very radical union representative. I heard that when she turned up years later among the Columbia students, who responded to her as warmly as the hatters, she wore a steel reinforced hat in case of problems with billy clubs.

Hal and Anne went over to the record player and put on a Jewish folk tune and soon the entire place was dancing Israeli circle dances. I soon clumsily joined in. I had traveled a long distance from Ohio. I suspect that same night, in a similar hall in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, the much hated Communists were dancing the same dances. Radicalism in New York City in those days was very Jewish.

I rarely saw Max Shachtman. Corning infrequently to the hall, he kept to himself and a small coterie of acolytes. One night I was privileged to go with him to a meeting of the Workmen’s Circle. In the pre-World War I days of Debsian socialism many immigrant workers joined the Socialist Party and formed their own foreign-language federations. These, in tum, created fraternal orders that supplied insurance and death benefits to the immigrants. Most of these groups split to join with the Communist Party. The Workmen’s Circle had remained with the Socialists and was composed primarily of Jewish garment workers.

The meeting was held in one of the small rooms at the Central Plaza in the Lower East Side and the topic of discussion was our favorite-the “Russian question.” To make matters more interesting, this branch of the Workmen’s Circle was dominated by former members of the Jewish Bund. The Bund had a long history and deep roots among Yiddish-speaking Polish workers. In 1903 the Bund had supported the Mensheviks against Lenin’s Bolsheviks. It had leaned to the left within Menshevisrn and in the 1930s had some members who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. At the beginning of World War II, two leaders of the Bund went to the USSR and were never heard of again. They were presumed killed by Stalin.

Max Shachtman started the evening off with a none-too-short exposition of his theory of the Soviet Union as a new class society having nothing to do with socialism. Then the Bund speaker got up. He turned to the small audience of fifteen or so people in the steamy room and, speaking perfect English, began: “Comrades, if you do not mind I will speak in my native tongue. This way I can express my thoughts more precisely.” He then began an oration in Yiddish, punctuated by the grandest gestures and facial expressions, as if he were speaking to a mass audience of thousands.

I could not understand a word, and to this day I do not know what the theory of the Bund was or is on the Russian question. But I will never forget that speech. The man was clearly a great orator; he had learned to speak in the only way great speaking can be learned–in a mass movement, in a period before television. No doubt before the war he had spoken to tens of thousands in the Warsaw Ghetto. Most of his former audience had since perished in Hitler’s gas chambers, his leaders had died in the hands of Stalin, and he now lived the life of exile and isolation linked to a past that could not be revived or relived. This night he had to be content with fifteen old comrades and one goy.

I was not the only non-Jew in the Shachtmanite movement. There was Mike Harrington. Mike used to complain about the tendency of the Jewish radicals to quite unconsciously hide their ethnicity. When comrades chose what we called “party names,” or pen names for writing in Labor Action, Max Dumbrow became Max Martin, George Rawick was transformed into George Rawlings and Albert Glotzer became Al Gates. Even our one Italian, Sam Bottone, used the name Sam Taylor. Mike decided to write some articles as Eli Fishman.

Mike Harrington was a handsome Irish looking fellow whose brown hair even then was salted with grey. He had a ready smile, a winning personality-the kind of fellow who could do almost anything requiring the assembling of words effortlessly, facilely. He spoke well and wrote well. Sometimes he would get an idea, find an unused old typewriter at 114, sit down and knock out a fifteen-page theoretical article for the discussion bulletin in an evening. To save comrades trouble he would type it directly on a mimeograph stencil.

I would not say Mike was the deepest thinker I ever met but he did think and there could have been no better choice for the national chairman of the YSL. Even in those days Mike was beginning to write outside the narrow confines of our small movement, becoming acquainted with the Village Voice people, starting on a road which would lead him to write The Other America. He chose the right topic at the right moment and, luckily, caught the eye of President John Kennedy. President Lyndon Johnson actually hired Mike for a while as an advisor. In this fashion Mike made his contribution to the reform movement of the 1960s. Of course we did not see this in Harrington in 1955. I do believe, though, that Mike saw that potential in himself.

Mike had come to radical politics through the Church. He had been a member of the Catholic Worker organization headed by Dorothy Day. This unusual group combined the typical “alms-to-the-poor” kind of rehabilitation work on the Bowery with a socialist/anarchist vision projected through its newspaper, which was sold for one penny (if you had it). Dorothy Day was a tough lady who stood up to both the witch hunters and the Catholic hierarchy while never swerving from her Catholic faith.

Mike later joined the youth group of the Socialist Party, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), led one of the many splits of YPSL from its parent organization, and fused his little group with Shachtman’s children.

When I knew Mike there remained an element of God within him mixed somewhat eclectically with Marxism. Our national secretary was a fellow named Max Dumbrow (Martin) who was so close to Shachtman in all matters that we called him Little Max. One day Little Max challenged Mike to a debate on the existence of God. Our flock buzzed with excitement as this was surely a change from our dreary Friday night forums. We all packed in to Little Max’s apartment for the show. It was a rousing debate and I remember that Little Max mopped up the floor with Mike. That was the only time I ever heard of religion being debated on the Left. We knew how to entertain ourselves in those days.

One fellow, Steve, active in our YSL branch would make a pitch for what we called “colonization” at every meeting. What he had in mind was not invading some underdeveloped nation but sending our student members into the plants–perhaps as alien an environment for most of them as a foreign land. Steve was a member of the Newark Branch of the ISL which, he explained to us at great length, was a proletarian branch. Since I was interested in the project and as I lived in nearby Moonachie, I decided to attend Newark branch meetings as a guest.

I soon discovered that the branch bore no relationship whatsoever to Newark. It actually met in an apartment in Livingston and its members lived everywhere in North Jersey but Newark. Its leading member, a fellow named Archie Lieberman (Winters), had been a trade-union activist in the Kearny shipyards during the war while his wife was a well-known militant in the Ladies’ Garment Workers union.(17) The anti-red witch hunt forced both of them out of the unions in the postwar period and, when I met them, they owned a little neighborhood grocery store in Hoboken. This had not dampened their conviction that work in the trade unions was the key to an eventual American Revolution.

There was also Rube Singer, who was a well-placed trade unionist at the General Motors Hyatt Ball Bearing Plant in Harrison, New Jersey. Steve worked in one of the auto plants in the area. Steve, unlike the other members, was an intellectual colonizer. Many years later he turned up as part of the New Left running something called the John Brown College out of an old estate he had acquired in upstate New York.

The Way We Thought

While at college I had evolved politically from liberalism toward revolutionary socialism of the Marxist variety. In New York City my studies of Marxism intensified. I used to walk along 14th Street to Union Square and then down University Place to the University Place Bookstore. It was one of those wonderfully cluttered used-book stores that once predominated in the area. The place was managed by Joe Carter, a former Trotskyist who had played an important role in the evolution of the Shachtman political tendency.(18) There I would search out rare editions of Trotsky’s works and other Marxist classics. In those days most of Trotsky’s writings were not in print.

I spent $20, half a week’s wages, for a rather mangled edition of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. My favorite find was a 1904 Charles Kerr edition of Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy which cost me $3.00. It bore the handwritten inscription: “Presented to Comrade Susan Williamson for selling the largest amount of Debs tickets. Nov. the 28, 1912.” I wondered if Comrade Susan had ever read the rather heavy tome. Not having to face the time pressures of the large movement Susan was part of, I had the time to read and I did read. I was determined to train myself as a Marxist and as a somewhat heretical follower of Lenin and Trotsky.

What I did not realize was that Max Shachtman and those closest to him in the ISL and YSL were traveling in a direction exactly opposite to mine. Starting from a revolutionary socialist outlook as followers of Lenin and Trotsky, these people were moving toward liberalism. Perhaps this is what made the YSL so effective in appealing to liberals like myself. The difficulty was that I and others like me among the youth did not wish to travel back toward our origins. It was precisely these opposite trajectories that prepared the faction fight and split that soon would develop in the YSL.

In order to understand these developments I will need to explain a bit about the way we thought in those days. What was this Trotskyism which had such an impact upon me, my comrades and many others the world over?

Trotskyism was, to begin with, a form of communism, of what many today call “Marxism-Leninism.” Trotsky, as a leader of the Russian Revolution, endorsed that revolution as a model for all future revolutions and Leninism as the series of beliefs and practices that would make possible such revolutions. This meant that the correct ideology was critical to a victorious revolution. Part of the task of a socialist was to develop and defend this ideology against “revisionist” and “reformist” deviations. Such deviations represented, to one degree or another, compromises and adaptations to the capitalist system that blocked its revolutionary overthrow.

We could see clearly that the major parties of the Second International had betrayed the working class of the world by supporting their respective governments in World War I. It was, to us, a mockery of internationalism to find the German Socialists mobilizing workers to fight against the Russians while the Russian Mensheviks (the competing group to the right of the Bolsheviks) sought to mobilize workers to fight against the Germans. It also seemed clear to us that the Mensheviks’ policy of participating in and supporting a coalition government with the capitalists would never have led to socialism.

The reader may very well wonder what was the relevance of such thoughts in 1955 and 1956 in a conservative country going through a boom period where socialism just barely survived in the form of minuscule groups. Here we took from the communist tradition a kind of messianic and apocalyptic thinking with strong religious parallels. The inner workings of the laws of capitalist development would, in time, transform the working class from a politically inert one to an active force seeking radical social transformation. At that point the key would be a party that had the correct program. This meant that our task, even in times of great isolation, was to construct the embryo of such a party and defend its revolutionary program so that it would be preserved for future use.

Of course we realized that, even in periods of isolation, we needed to function by disseminating some propaganda and even, occasionally, engaging in a minor action. Such actions, however, were to be consistent with our overall revolutionary aims. We were people whose political specificity only had relevance to a distant past and a distant possible future. No wonder we were torn between a tendency to retreat into sectarian irrelevance and a tendency to relate to the present by adapting to it, thus losing our revolutionary objectives.

We Trotskyists viewed ourselves as true communists, the defenders of a golden age of genuine democratic workers’ rule in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Trotsky between 1917 and 1923. It is not important at this point whether our image of that period was accurate–I can now see that we were blind to the distortions of workers’ democracy implemented under Lenin and Trotsky. What mattered was that we believed in that image and sought its reproduction in contemporary and future revolutionary events.(19) Socialism for us was not simply a matter of steel-production statistics but of a vital communal democracy of the masses, a society of living egalitarianism and great creative energy.

In the Trotskyist view, Stalin usurped power in the Soviet Union and established a bureaucratic rule that crushed the earlier Soviet democracy. At the same time Stalin reversed the revolutionary line of the Comintern to fit in with the conservative needs of the bureaucracy thus leading to the defeat of the working class in revolutionary situations in various countries. Trotskyists saw themselves as the heirs of the Leninist tradition while they viewed the official Communists as betrayers and usurpers. We conducted a continual critique of Communist policy both within Russia and outside of it.

We were the left critics of the official Communists. We held that, under Stalin, the worldwide Communist movement had gone over to the reformist views of Menshevism and reformism. We could make a pretty, good case on the basis of Communist policy since 1934.(20) The Communists had supported Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1930s and scuttled efforts of the labor movement to form its own party. During World War II the Communists had opposed any trade-union action, thus putting themselves in conflict with the militant sentiments of most workers in the last year of the war.

Trotskyism’s critique of the lack of democracy in the Soviet Union was its most distinct contribution to left politics. In the 1930s Trotskyism was almost alone on the American left in countering the illusions about the Soviet totalitarian system that were dominant at that time. It played a critically important role in seeking to project a socialism that was vital and revolutionary while, at the same time, democratic and honest. To the extent that socialism today morally survives the crimes of those who administer states in its name, it owes a debt to the Trotskyists of the 1930s.

We were not just Trotskyists; we were Shachtmanites. We were the dissidents among the dissidents. How much more obscure could you get? We traced our origins to a 1940 split in the movement over that question of questions: the nature of Russia. We were very proud of our special theory of the Soviet countries as “new class societies.” We viewed the mainstream Trotskyists in James P. Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party as “Stalinoids” while they viewed us as “Stalinophobic.” Both groups were still hypnotized by the Russian Revolution and were still debating its consequences for “the world revolution.”

[In the concluding section of this article, to be published in the next issue, Tim Wohlfarth discusses the political struggles in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and their effect on socialist political tendencies of the time, as well as his own shift in allegiance to the Socialist Workers Party and the dissolution of the Independent Socialist League.]


  1. James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism (New York, 1944) 1-59. Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia (New York, 1960) 357-376.
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  2. Farrell Dobbs, Teamster Power (New York, 1972); Teamster Rebellion (1974); Teamster Politics (1975); Teamster Bureaucracy (1977).
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  3. Alan Wald has written some worthwhile material on this group: James T. Farrell, the Revolutionary Socialist Years (New York, 1978); The Revolutionary Imagination: the Poetry and Politics of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan (Chapel Hill, 1983); The New York Intellectuals (Chapel Hill, 1987).
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  4. For Trotskyist side of the dispute see In Defense of Marxism (New York, 1942). For Shachtman’s views see Leon Trotsky, The New Course and Max Shachtman, The Struggle for the New Course (New York, 1943). I wrote on the matter twice: What Makes Shachtman Run? (New York, 1957) 6-8; The Struggle for Marxism in the United States (New York, 1971) 48ft.
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  5. The term was coined by an obscure Italian dissident follower of Trotsky’s, Bruno Rizzi. See Adam Westoby’s fascinating introduction to the first English edition of Rizzi’s work, The Bureaucratization of the World (New York, 1985). James Burnham and Joe Carter were the first to introduce the theory into the American Trotskyist movement. Shachtman’s role was more that of the popularizer of the theory.
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  6. Robert Cummings, “Dwight MacDonald in the 1940s,” New Politics, Summer 1986.
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  7. For the complexities of Partisan Review’s political evolution see Wald, The New York Intellectuals.
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  8. In particular a vision of a worldwide struggle for democracy as well as their theoretical view of the Soviet countries. See Sidney Blumenthal, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment (New York, 1986).
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  9. The group was formed in 1953 out of a fusion of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), led by Mike Harrington, which had split from the Socialist Party, and the Socialist Youth League (SYL), the youth organization of the Independent Socialist League (ISL), headed by Max Shachtman. Arden was from the SYL and Denitch from the YPSL.
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  10. Herman Benson wrote on labor matters in the ISL’s Labor Action and has been active in more recent years promoting democracy in the trade unions, editing a newsletter, Union Democracy Review, devoted to that purpose. Unless otherwise noted, I will use a person’s actual name followed by the pseudonym in parentheses.
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  11. Julius Jacobson was founder and editor in later years of the theoretical magazine New Politics.
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  12. Eugene V. Debs had been a trade-union leader who went to jail for leading a nationwide rail strike. He was a founder of the Socialist Party and its presidential candidate several times. He headed the party in the period just prior to World War I when socialism was receiving its strongest support in the United States.
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  13. Irving Howe and B.J. Widick, The UAW and Walter Reuther (New York, 1949).)
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  14. Gordon became an important staff person in the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. This fitted well with his organizational skills and his sincere dedication to democracy. Later he became active in the Democratic Socialists of America.)
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  15. In the 1930s Hal Draper had been a leader of the Trotskyist youth, the Young Peoples Socialist League Fourth Internationalist (YPSL Fourth). In recent years Hal turned to a writing career, producing some very fine scholarly material on Marxism. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 1: State and Bureaucracy (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1977); Vol. 2: The Politics of Social Classes (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1978); Vol. 3: The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1986).)
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  16. For more information on these groups see Eric R. Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (New York,. 1969) 193 ff.
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  17. The core of this branch had been members of the Hoboken branch of the SWP. They split in 1947 along with Al Goldman and Felix Morrow. Archie Lieberman and Rube Singer have continued to be active on the left as members of Democratic Socialists of America. Rube, I understand, now retired from the General Motors plant, has been a left critic of DSA’s trade-union policy.
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  18. In 1937 Carter had written an article with James Burnham questioning Trotsky’s theory of the Soviet Union.
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  19. For my views now see “The Two Souls of Leninism,” Against the Current #4-5 (Sept/Oct. 1986) 43-47.
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  20. Between 1929 and 1934 Stalin imposed a super-radical policy on his international followers. This was rather bewildering to the Trotskyists who were forced to make some telling moderate criticisms of Communist strategy, particularly in urging a united front with the Social Democrats in Germany against Hitler. But on the whole Trotskyists have been left critics of Stalinism.
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May-June 1988, ATC 14

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