Shachtmanites & Cannonites: Socialist Politics After Hungary ’56

Against the Current, No. 15, July/August 1988

Tim Wohlforth

[In the first installment of this personal account of political life in the socialist movement of the 1950s (ATC 14), Tim Wohlforth discussed his recruitment to socialist politics and his early years in the Young Socialist League (YSL), the youth organization of the Independent Socialist League led by Max Shachtman.]

THE MOVEMENT I was part of between 1955 and 1957 was definitely one in transition from a radical communist past toward a predominantly social-democratic future.(1) Yet few, except perhaps a core of Shachtman’s personal friends, were aware of where we were headed politically. Certainly I was not. Many of us still studied Trotsky’s works and borrowed arguments from Lenin. Others were clearly embarrassed by such utterances. Stalinism was the main (some seem to suggest only) enemy and democracy was the battle cry. Imperceptibly, radical communists were becoming-social democrats.

This outlook fitted well with the dominant mood of the times as American public opinion together with its intellectual agencies were mobilized to do service in the Cold War against what our current president calls the Evil Empire. What the Shachtmanites did not realize was that it was their adaptation in the 1950s that hindered them in taking advantage of the new radicalization of the 1960s.

I was a member of the Young Socialist League’s “leading committee,” the National Action Committee (NAC). We met each week for two or more hours (usually more) and it was our task to decide national policy between meetings of the National Executive Committee (NEC) or National Convention. We carried out this awesome task by discussing all matters at great length and — this is to the credit of the group — with considerable give and take and controversy. The committee members included Mike Harrington and Little Max (Max Dumbrow/Martin). Sam Bottone (Taylor) was in that period as close to Little Max as the latter was to Shachtman. Max and Sam were members of the ISL’s “leading committee” so they were of like minds by the time they made it to our meeting. Bogdan Denitch was a member for part of the time I was on the NAC.

Sy Landy was our leftist. While adhering quite rigidly to a Shachtmanite view of the world he favored a more radical tactical course within the country. Sy was the consummate New York radical. He ate and breathed politics speaking authoritatively on any matter and at great length day and night without stop. He loved to debate, talk, maneuver, combine, bloc, split Sy, like almost all the other YSL leaders was too old, really, for a youth movement. He must have been in his early thirties then and looked a bit older due to glasses and balding hair.

George Rawick (Rawlings) was my favorite because you could never be quite sure what would come out of his mouth. I have found most radicals, to the contrary, to be deadeningly predictable. On a typical evening we would all be discussing our tactical line with Sy being the most militant, and I, soon also of the left, joining him or being a bit more extreme. Max was the voice of calm reason, the careful, cautious I would meet a decade later. He would start coming down hard on the side of the left. Then came the vote tactic. George would get flustered, his face would glow a bright red, not unlike the shade of the Healy(2) and he lined up with Max, Mike and Sam. Afterwards he would go up to Max saying: “Sorry, I got carried away. I know I shouldn’t read Trotsky before I come into one of these meetings!”

George in his own way reflected much of the YSL’s membership: their hearts were with The Revolution while their practical sense led them to a very conservative line of action. Perhaps they were right in practice and little else could be done than they did do. I did not hold such a view then but I can certainly consider it in hindsight. The problem was that in time the practice led to changes in theory and in heart.

The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was held in February 1956. Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech on the murderous crimes of Stalin leaked out to the world press and made its way into Eastern Europe. Here was the highest leader of the Soviet Union stating what for many years Trotskyists were hounded by Communists for saying. Not all of Stalin’s crimes were revealed, but enough was admitted to deliver a shattering blow to the thinking of many Communists of the West and to encourage powerful movements in Eastern Europe.

In June came the explosion of workers at Poznan, Poland, encouraging a broad reform movement to gain control of the Polish Party. Some students and intellectuals raised ideas very close to Trotskyism, and workers councils were formed in the factories.

This in tum encouraged a movement of intellectuals in Hungary, the Petofi Circle, which soon led to a countrywide movement affecting the workers. In October workers’ councils were formed and a reformist group around Imre Nagy took over the Communist Party. The Hungarian Revolution had begun! On November 4, virtually on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Soviet tanks rolled across the border into Hungary to crush the revolution. Yet a heroic general strike of workers in the Csepel district held out for two more months.(3)

We followed these events daily, hourly. This was a real revolution in our times-one based on a political program that we felt was very close to ours. Workers’ councils were formed as they had been during the great Russian Revolution. Soviets once again-but this time directed against the “Soviet” Union. How well we knew the Russian Revolution: February, the April theses, the June Days, the July Days, Kerensky, Komilov, Lenin, Martov, Dan, even Sukhanov. But now we had our own. We devoured the New York Times, clipping it into little pieces and filling up file folders.

We were particularly fascinated by the reports of Communists from the West like British Daily Worker correspondent Peter Fryer who was to become a Trotskyist.(4) We could see the old Communist militant, Pal Maleter, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and who was now the head of the Budapest workers’ council, standing there with a red star still on his cap and a pistol in his belt. Or the small-town workers’ council, which was held in the old party headquarters with Lenin’s picture still on the wall.

We romanticized the events and we did do a bit of embroidering, but I believe we were basically correct in our reaction. The Hungarian Revolution put an end to the epoch when Stalinism could be believed in by millions of people as the realization of socialism and democracy in practice. Stalinism did not go away after 1956; but it survived more through realpolitik and brute strength than through an ideological grip on the minds of advanced layers in most nations. Because of what happened in 1956, the student movement in the 1960s was remarkably free of Stalinist influence. And-what was so important for us-Trotskyism finally got a chance.

It is difficult now to realize the degree to which the Trotskyist movement had been made into the pariah on the left. Communist Party members simply did not speak to Trotskyists. For the most part they sincerely believed we were fascist agents. We were driven from meetings and organizations controlled by Communists.

All that decisively changed. To me it was summed up in a mass meeting called in New York City by the Communist Party to attempt to explain to the membership the meaning of the events in Eastern Europe. A small band of Socialist Workers Party members turned up with a leaflet bearing the screaming headline: TROTSKY!SM VINDICATED! This was none too subtle, and later the tactical approach became more sophisticated. But after the imprisonment and death of so many Trotskyists and Communists and the murder of Trotsky himself, the SWP had earned the right to one leaflet originating in the adrenal gland and aimed at the political jugular.

The Hungarian Revolution destroyed the political equilibrium of all groups on the left in the United States. Its effect upon the Communist Party and its periphery was catastrophic. Literally tens of thousands of people left the Communist movement Even there the Hungarian events functioned as a traumatic catalyst bringing to a head a process that had been proceeding slowly for a decade.

A combination of disappointment with the failure of socialism in postwar America, a prosperity that lifted many radical Jewish workers into the comfortable middle class, and a malaise created by the undemocratic features of both the Soviet Union and internal party life, had loosened the grip of Communism on many who maintained a formal loyalty. This is why the desertions were so extensive when they came and also why so few former Communists had the energy to continue in left politics once they left the party.

It was much the same with the Shachtman group.(5) The postwar world was even a greater disappointment for Shachtman’s followers than it was for the Communists. At least the Communists could gain encouragement from the triumphs of their sister parties in Eastern Europe and in China. For Shachtman this was viewed as an unmitigated disaster, the spread of a rival imperialist power.

The Shachtman group was also affected by a devastating combination of personal prosperity and a lack of opportunities of any sort for leftists in and out of the labor movement The Shachtman group had become, especially for the few older cadres left, a combination of a holding operation for ideas still deeply believed in and a social club based on relations built up over two stormy decades.

The Hungarian Revolution created the conditions for abandoning the holding operation. While most Communists abandoned their movement, the Shachtmanites liquidated theirs. Many had abandoned the idea of an independent movement a long time ago. Now it was time to get rid of the organizational shell that remained.

My First Faction Fight

It was in September 1956 that the YSL leadership, following the lead of the ISL, introduced the idea of unity with the Socialist Party.(5) The Socialist Party itself had recently gone through a unification with a more right-wing social-democratic split-off, the Social Democratic Federation, and was known as the SP-SDF. It had a membership of less than 1000, and most of these members were inactive, the products of history rather than current practice. Its policies were extremely anti­Communist and-outside of a belief in socialism-indistinguishable from those of the Democratic Party.

The leadership motivated its proposal on several different grounds. First, it sought through unification to break out of the narrow ingrown sect existence of the ISL/YSL. This was, without a doubt, the most appealing side of the proposal. The organization had sufficient life to realize that its day-to-day existence had become deadly.

Further, the idea fitted in with the mood on the left in 1956. With the Communist Party profoundly shattered by the crisis of international Stalinism, regroupment was on everyone’s lips. The proposal for unity with the SP-SDF represented one pole of regroupment.

The sentiment for unification, furthermore, was supported by passing through the stage of liberalism to social democracy and only after a long experience with social democracy to the more “revolutionary” ideas that the ISUYSL were supposed to hold. The SP was therefore seen as a necessary opening to the right for revolutionaries and it was projected that any radicalization in the United States would lead to the massive growth of the SP. This argument was meant to appeal — and it generally did-to the more radical element within the group.

Finally, for the leadership around Shachtman the unity proposal had a deeper political meaning: the desire to abandon what remained of a communist tradition for a social-democratic one. This was the real motivation of the Shachtman group, but it was placed on the back burner until after unification. The bulk of the Shachtman group was convinced that the unification offered a way out of sect existence and represented a transitional stage through which they believed workers would pass.

We on the left opposed the unification, primarily because it seemed to us to be a going over to the political positions of what we called State Department socialism. Yet we were not sectarians and we countered the majority’s unity scheme with an appealing one of our own. We, too, felt the need to go beyond the sect existence of the YSL.

However, we looked in the direction of the ferment within the Communist Party and its periphery for the material with which to build a regrouped, militant, independent youth movement. We believed that the State Department politics of the SP would be a major roadblock preventing that organization from reaching the dissidents who were breaking away from the Communist Party.

While we were soon to find that we were too optimistic in our hopes of what could be won out of the CP ferment, we were proven to be more correct in our view of the future radicalization than the Shachtmanite right wing. The student radicalization of the 1960s swept right past both the SP and the Communist Party, finding new and more militant political channels.

We gathered the forces of the Left Wing Caucus around this simple perspective. This was my first faction fight and has a place in my memory like one’s first love. It was fresh, spirited, optimistic, brash, at times excessive, and a little clumsy.

We started with thirteen people and ended with thirty or so, but we produced more written material in a few months than many mass parties do in years. We filled a thick monthly faction publication, the Left Wing Bulletin, as well as a good part of the frequently published YSL discussion bulletin. I was the organizer of the faction and its representative on the NAC. In the last weeks of the struggle I worked on the project full-time, writing each day to our small groups of supporters in different parts of the country.

Despite our extreme seriousness-no doubt overdone since the fate of humanity turned out not to be dependent on the outcome of the debates-we had our moments of humor. Scott Arden, under the pseudonym of “S. Aesop,” submitted to our bulletin a satirical fable, entitled “The Shaman and the Swamp.” It was the story of the Redmen who were separated from and persecuted by the Others. The Redmen were divided into tribes and even clans within tribes. One tribe was headed by “Mighty Shaman.”

“He was headman because he had made his own ritual, could make awesome incantations, and mainly because out of the many tribes he had been in he had made this one. Mighty Shaman’s tribe was small and old but it lived right next to a younger and stronger tribe. This younger tribe bowed down to Mighty Shaman and used his ritual and made his nephew, Little Shaman, headman because Little Shaman knew the ritual real well and could make almost as much noise as Mighty Shaman.”

The Mighty Shaman decided to move his tribe into the Swamp where “a Redman could ooze down into the warm mire up to his neck and almost no one would know he was a Redman if he did not tell them.”

By the Spring of 1957 the atmosphere had become poisoned. We felt the tension the moment we entered the hall. Voices were lowered and we were dealt with in a most formal way. We were the pariahs; we were shunned.

The SWP played an important role in the political development of our tendency. My own thinking was leading me closer to SWP views.(7) Ifelt a need to talk with SWPers, to test out my new thoughts in discussions. So I headed across 14th Street to the SWP headquarters on University Place. It was on the way to the University Place bookstore anyway, I told myself. There I was rudely greeted by Vincent Copeland who was SWP Local Organizer at that time. He argued hostilely with me and nearly threw me out of the place.

What I did not realize at the time was that Copeland was part of a minority faction in the SWP, which had come to the pro-Stalinist position that the Hungarian Revolution was a fascist plot and was urging the SWP to support the Soviet intervention. This group, headed by Sam Marcy, became the Workers World Party. Copeland was certainly the last person in the SWP to welcome a young Shachtmanite

My next encounter worked out a little better. At some affair Murry Weiss of the SWP Political Committee approached me. “I have been corresponding for some time now with a colleague of yours, Shane Mage, on certain theoretical matters related to the colonial revolution and his state-capitalist theory. Perhaps you would like to see the correspondence and discuss it with me?” A most friendly approach and I responded by pouring out my innermost political thoughts. This was not tactically wise, I suppose, but I desperately needed someone with whom I could really talk about the matters of theory that were possessing me.

Murry Weiss was an exceptional man. He was large, really fat, with a big face, wire-rimmed glasses, receding hairline. Murry had a sparkle in his eyes that gave him a boyish look. He always wore a crumpled suit with an open white shirt. He was a completely self-taught intellectual from a working-class background. He had left school in the eighth grade and what he knew he learned in the movement. He knew a Jot.

Many, many years later Murry left the SWP and he was forced to find a way to earn a living. He had a knack for communicating with people, understanding people. So he decided to become a psychologist. He passed his high school equivalency test and then on to college to get the degrees he needed-in his late fifties!

In a short while I was collaborating with the SWP through Murry Weiss. Murry would come over to my little apartment almost every day and we would discuss tactics. I found that I had very close agreement with the SWP particularly on the next stage of developing a youth movement. We agreed that we needed to tum our movement toward the crisis within the Communist Party and the milieu that looked to that Party, that we should patiently try to bring some of these people into a youth movement. Even if we did not accomplish this we could only strengthen the position of what we viewed as our revolutionary forces and weaken Stalinism.

The SWP did not have any youth movement, since, in practice at least, it had drawn rather negative conclusions about youth from the loss of virtually all of them to Shachtman in 1940. The opportunity to make up for this by winning over a few of Shachtman’s youth seventeen years later was just too tempting for the SWP leadership to ignore. So with some reservations Murry was given a fairly free hand to work with us.

I have a very murky memory of what must have been the 1957 Convention of the SWP. It was held in an old decaying German Hall somewhere on the East Side just above 14th Street. It was a secret affair without any indication outside the hall of what was going on. I did not attend any session but was brought to a back room off of the Convention Hall to say hello to Jim Cannon.

To the YSL leadership we were simply “Cannonites,”(8) and as such, to be dismissed. This characterization had its impact on an oppositional layer within Shachtmanism that actually was quite close to us on tactical matters. This group included Hal Draper, Gordon Haskell and Sy Landy. In varying degrees, they opposed unification with the SP and accused Shachtman, to use Draper’s words, of “a systematic adaptation to social democracy.”(9) But their traditional hostilities to the SWP were so great that they refused to work with us and, in the end, went with Shachtman into the SP.

I suppose we could have reached some kind of agreement with these people if we had hidden our SWP sympathies. We were young and brash and particularly bad at hiding anything from anybody. Perhaps more important, we were convinced, I still believe correctly, that the SWP was a more useful ally in creating the kind of militant youth movement that the opportunities of the period demanded.

In late June the YSL held its national convention, which was devoted exclusively to this faction fight The convention was held in the old hall at 114 West 14th Street It was open to the “public”-which did not flock to the event We had no problem of overcrowding even though all the New York membership attended as well as delegates from out of town. Sitting in the back of the hall in the visitors section was Murry Weiss of the SWP. Max Shachtman sat down beside him and together they watched “their youth” fighting it out It was a kind of Lilliputian repeat of the 1940 debate.

At one point Murry turned to Max: “Well you have gone and done it, Max. You have really crossed the Rubicon this time.” Shachtman chuckled and answered: “I have crossed the Rubicon so many times in the pages of the Militant that I’ve gotten seasick!”

The convention was an anticlimax; we had discussed the issues so thoroughly, both verbally and in writing that little new was said. Nothing actually happened as the YSI)ISL leadership, though determined to expel us, had not quite made up its mind how to go about it So the convention ended having accomplished little more than a formal endorsement of the majority’s line.

The expulsion came on Labor Day of 1957. We were quite scattered at that moment; I was with my wife and child at my father-in-law’s farm in New Hampshire. We received notification by mail, and when we all got back to New York City we dashed off our answer to the expulsion. The grounds consisted of our participation in a joint regroupment forum series with the SWP youth and independents during that summer.

The expulsion was even more anticlimactic than the convention. We were already well along in preparing with the SWP youth the first issue of our paper, and if we hadn’t been expelled when we were it would have been most embarrassing. The expulsion was wholly justified. It was not a matter of” discipline” or “internal democracy.” It was very much like a divorce arranged after each party was already living with different partners.

And So It Came To Pass

Shachtman’s entry into the Socialist Party did not proceed smoothly due to resistance on the part of the SP leadership. In the meantime, to use Hal Draper’s words, the Shachtmanite’s politics had to be “bent, fitted, filed, rubbed, carved, trimmed or cold-storaged so as to ingratiate us as good dogs with the SP right wing.”(10) The merger was finally agreed to in the fall of 1958.(11)

Once inside, the Shachtman group’s superior theoretical and political training brought it immediately into the leadership of the new host party. Simultaneously the group evolved politically so far to the right that its leadership shifted the Socialist Party also in a rightward direction. This was expressed most sharply in the SP’s abandonment of any independent political strategy and its support of the Democratic Party.(12)

In time, divisions developed among the Shachtmanites within the Socialist Party. One group associated with Hal Draper broke away to form the Independent Socialist Clubs, which played a role in the Peace and Freedom Party as well as in the labor movement, particularly in the Teamsters union. This group, which has since gone through a number of splits, represented a return, in a New Left atmosphere, to the more radical roots of the Shachtman group. It was also inspired by the British International Socialists, now the British Socialist Workers Party led by Tony Cliff.

The rest of the Shachtmanites split the Socialist Party over which faction within the Democratic Party and trade-union movement to support A group of virulent anticommunists around Shachtman supported Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers and the mainstream Democrats. They called their group the Social Democrats-USA. Another younger group around Mike Harrington supported the left elements within the Democratic Party such as George McGovern and within the AFL-CIO around Victor Gotbaum.

How do I now assess the Shachtman episode in the life of the American left? I have two quite different emotions when I think back on that period. There was something wonderfully maverick about the group. They dared to look at the leaders of the Russian Revolution critically. They accepted a theoretical heritage and yet questioned it. This gave the group a life that I sorely missed in my later travels among the more “orthodox” Trotskyists.

I also appreciate the honesty of Labor Action. It was what it was, a paper written by and for intellectuals, including intellectuals in the labor movement It was not the paper of intellectuals wearing blue collars, trying to write what they think “real workers” would like. It was even, from time to time, interesting.

The Shachtmanites were right in their insistence on seeing socialism as an extension of democracy. This linkage is still far too weak in left circles today. They didn’t really do too bad a job of practicing what they preached in their internal life.

But there was a side of Shachtmanism that I was happy to abandon after 1956. The Shachtmanites adhered to a view of the world so embittered by anticommunism that they failed to see human progress when that progress took an impure form. Their real world view was described by George Orwell’s 1984, Hannah Arendt’s atomization of society, and James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution.

The World According To Shachtman was one swiftly falling under the iron heal of totalitarian, bureaucratic slaveholders. The only force resisting this historic sweep of the Stalinist hordes, was the embattled and, of course, far from perfect Western democracies.

Shachtman was the original theorist of the Evil Empire. It is difficult now to recapture the atmosphere of those times. That was the way we really thought Those of us on the left within Shachtmanism were even more pessimistic for we saw no hope in the West either. It is difficult to understand why we bothered with politics at all. I suppose each of us, underneath, had a martyr complex. We envisioned ourselves, alone in the world, wandering in some forest, repeating the words of a novel we had committed to memory.

Great revolutions did sweep the postwar world and humanity is better off for these developments. Yes, it is possible to recognize these great changes in China, in Cuba, in Vietnam, without at the same time accepting these societies as they are, without abandoning that vital linkage between socialism and democracy to which Shachtman and his friends made such a positive contribution.


  1. I should explain what the term 0social democrat” was to us then — and remains pretty much for me today. Social democrats were the right­wing socialists who accepted capitalism in practice, seeking to reform it rather than overthrow it. We were all schooled to the “great betrayal” of the Second International in 1914-17 when its constituent parties lined up in support of their respective capitalist ruling classes in World War I. It was not difficult to draw parallels to socialist organizations in the United States in the 1950s who found what we considered American imperialism to be the lesser evil.
    back to text
  2. Gerry Healy is a British Trotskyist Between 1964 and 1974 I headed a group in the United States, the Workers League, which supported him.
    back to text
  3. For instance see Melvin J. Lasky, ed., The Hungarian Revolution: A White Book (New York, Praeger, 1957); and Andy Anderson, Hungary 56 (Bromley, England, 1964).
    back to text
  4. Peter Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy (London, 1956, reissued 1986).
    back to text
  5. For an account of the decay of the mainstream Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in this period see my forthcoming book, The Prophet’s Chr1dren.
    back to text
  6. Shane Mage, “Lessons of the Recent NEC Meeting,” Pt 1,Which Road for Socialist Youth? (Berkeley, 1959).
    back to text
  7. I had come over to the views of the SWP on the nature of the Soviet Union. My two main collaborators in the minority held different views. Shane Mage viewed the USSR as a state capitalist country while James Robertson remained an orthodox Shachtmanite.
    back to text
  8. James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, was at the time the national chairman of the SWP. He was living on the West Coast, leaving, by and large, the active running of the group to Farrell Dobbs, who was national secretary.
    back to text
  9. Eric Thomas Chester, Socialists and the Ballot Box (New York, Praeger, 1985) 124.
    back to text
  10. Ibid 34.
    back to text
  11. Chester 125.
    back to text
  12. This was opposed by a group around David McReynolds, which later broke away to form its own Socialist Party.
    back to text

July-August 1988, ATC 15

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *