Life in a Vanguard Party

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Stan Weir

TIM WOHLFORTH’s assessments of the Independent Socialist League (ISL)(1) during four of the last five years before its demise in 1958, are valuable to me because they come from a participant in the ISL’s youth organization, the Young Socialist League (YSL). But disappointment dominated my feelings as I read this 12,000- word piece of autobiography called “Life With Shachtman.”

Wohliorth’s generalizations about his ISL experience captured my interest. Few have written on this subject. But there is too much that is not attempted.

A journalistic history of the ISL and its predecessor, the Workers’ Party (WP), is offered. What is mainly missing in this writing is discussion of the personal process by which the author’s own political perceptions changed as he moved in and out of the YSL, and how it felt. Technically, the problem is that the author does not share his methodology. Generalizations are made first. Specifics, when offered, appear at random intervals thereafter.

Readers are not only left with the task of structuring those bits, but of inventing the missing specifics that might finally reveal the process by which the generalizations were developed.

Books by Alan Wald, Eric Chester, Irving Howe, Maurice Isserman, Russell Jacoby and others, have in the last few years focused considerable attention on the very small grouping of less than 500 sometimes called “The Shachtmanites.”

This attentiveness has little to do with the renegacy period of “Shachtrnanism” in the late ’40s and ’50s. No, it is because this tiny band at its birth developed two major alternative theories on the nature of the Russian state after the failure of the 1917 revolution.

Inside the official Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party during the late 1930s, the people in the political factions around Shachtman and C.L.R. James became dissatisfied with Trotsky’s theory that Russia remained a degenerated workers’ state, even though it had invaded the borders of both Finland and Poland in full imperialist character.

The people of the Shachtman and James tendencies formed the Workers’ Party in 1940. Both tendencies believed that there was no longer any basis for even critical support of Russia as a workers’ state, although they differed over what it had become.

The former felt it was bureaucratic collectivist and the latter that it was state capitalist. Neither concluded that any form of capitalism had become worthy of critical suppart.(2) They were able to refine these theories only because each side contained highly skilled lay scholars and because they had the benefit of each other’s criticism.

They were able to co-exist until the panic that came with the end of World War II. The United States and Russia had divided the world, each for its own form of imperialist purposes. The war had not only interrupted, but had substantially set back the future of socialism.

It must have been terribly oppressive for Wohlfarth to come to young adulthood with all its idealism, and then be introduced to socialist ideas at a time when socialist organizations were no longer able to generate optimism and goodwill in the public or their own members. When he joined in 1953, the ISL was an organization of unhappy people and had been so for almost a decade.

Founded on the “third-cramp” idea, without the appearance of a socialist movement anywhere in the world that was democratic and independent of either Russia or the United States, the WP-ISL began to disintegrate. The big downturn came in 1946. The war ended and contrary to Trotsky’s prediction, Russian Communism didn’t come apart due to revolutionary upheaval.

Instead, the Russian leadership stabilized its position and had rid itself of its biggest ideological liability, the necessity to defend the theory of socialism in one country. As the Soviet army chased down and defeated the German forces in the countries between Stalingrad and Berlin, it left Kremlin-trained people in control of key governmental positions, particularly in departments of “internal affairs” (police).

All of Central Europe soon become “socialist” Stalin pronounced the existence of socialism in many countries. Ideological waters were muddied. Communists no longer had to admit to nationalism and Trotskyists lost clear claim to the concept of international socialism.

Wartime Resistance

The gigantic industrial growth that came with the opening of World War II allowed the highly intellectualized members of the WP to get industrial jobs and end their isolation I joined in 1942 when the process was less than a year old.

I could have joined no other organization. The WP was the only socialist organization that refused to give political support to the war. It held that there would be more totalitarianism in the world after the war and its destruction than before.

Despite all the disadvantages, the WP was a growing organization able to stimulate new ideas. If, for example, due to size, one of its branches around the country qualified for four delegates to the highest body or convention, an ideological minority in that branch did not have to get 25 percent of the votes in order to send a delegate. The amount was 17 percent, set by constitutional mandate.

The idea was that everyone gained through constantly feeling the pressure of new ideas, which almost always began with minority backing.

Similarly, a political tendency that by convention vote on its views had earned one seat on the national committee was automatically given two seats. The difficulty a lone person has in effectively representing a point of view against multiple opponents was given some relief.

The positive sense of purpose that existed in the WP during its early years had another major source. Many corporate employers were using the war effort as a cover for an offensive against the people in their hire who had recently built new industrial unions.

But despite the war the hourly wage workers were not submitting. In the years from 1942through1945, there were 16,426 strikes by 8,403,877 workers, resulting in 64,429,165 idle man-and-woman-days. These figures substantially exceeded records set in the 1930s. In1941, when all-time high records were reached for all pre-war years, there were 4,288 strikes by 2,362,620 people or 8.4 percent of the total employed. In 1945, 12.2 percent of the employed, or 3,467{XX) employees conducted 4,750 strikes.(3)

The Workers’ Party was the only Marxist grouping with a national presence that was able to participate fully in this unusual resistance. It felt that the dominant class in each of the nations that constituted “the Allied war effort” would use the war to dominate its own and other populations.

The wartime resistance of American workers had a triple purpose. The first was to keep the employers from stealing back the working conditions won by their employees in the previous years; the second to overcome the wage freeze; and the third was an attempt to retain the local union a4tonomy being stolen by labor’s top brass.

The Workers’ Party was the only organization that could support these struggles without coming into conflict with any of its basic ideas. The Communist Party and the Socialist Party, for separate reasons, each found it impossible to participate in any way.

SWPers accused us of “adventurism” at a time when they were guided by a policy of caution in order to survive until stands could be taken with less risk. This was not due to any lack of courage, but from sincere caution contributed to by the need to play the role of left-wing opposition to the Communists and not totally abandon support of a war also being fought by a “degenerated workers’ state.”

The expansion of employment due to the war made it possible for women to be the major force among the couple of hundred WPers who got jobs in industry. On-the-job alliance between these radical intellectuals and indigenous workers went furthest in plants organized by the United Auto Workers (UAW).

WPers played a prominent role in the formation of the vitally important Rank and File Caucus. It was the only organized force that stood in the way of the official leadership, a coalition of conservative Philip Murray followers and pro-Communists called the Addes-Thomas caucus. In their zeal to please the employers they moved to bring back piece work and campaigned for National Labor Conscription or putting all workers in uniform at their work ‘benches.

In 1945 the Rank and File Caucus, which didn’t have one prominent official leader in it, got a vote against continuing the wartime no-strike pledge from over 40 percent of the membership. When the war in Europe ended the carefully ambitious Reuther brothers, Walter and Victor, joined and took over the Caucus with the use of left rhetoric.

From Idealism to Cynicism

At the 1947 UAW convention the Addes-Thomas forces were on the defensive. They had recently ridden insensitively over all who had gotten in their way and now over the old incumbents.

R.J. Thomas had been defeated for president by Walter Reuther in 1946. Now, George Addes had been replaced as secretary-treasurer by Emil Mazey and Reuther had gotten a majority on the executive board.

Nevertheless, the Reuthers and Mazey gave back the leadership to their defeated opponents on one principal issue, the fight against the just enacted Taft-Hartley Act

John L. Lewis of the miners’ union had come out against compliance. Congress had been flooded by the largest amount of mail in opposition to a piece of legislation ever received to that time. It was possible to defeat the act despite passage, unless some major union created precedent by conforming to any of its requirements.

The Addes-Thomas caucus proposed that the union refuse to sign the non­Communist affidavits required by the as yet unlegitimated act.

Willoughby Abner, Black leader and a leading Reutherite, took the floor of the convention. He held up for exposure the radical rhetoric used by the current Addes-Thomas proposal, as contrasted with the pro-employer character of their wartime policies. “Look who is talking militant now,* he said, “the piecework boys.”(4) He moved support of the affidavits, the entire Reuther Caucus voted accordingly and won.

The UAW thus became the first major union to comply and was transformed into a different sort of vanguard than that intended by the Rank-and-File Caucus. An essential act in the opening of U.S. Cold War domestic policy was completed.

Workers’ Party members and Reutherites lrving Howe and B.J. Widick, in their book, The UAW and Walter Reuther,(5) supported the compliance and were representing the views of the Shachtman leadership. No open discussion of the matter was ever held inside the ISL.

This story represents a transformation from idealism to cynicism that took place in less than six years. How it that ends and means is could be separated in so short a time?

Change seldom occurs for just one reason. It is my belief that the main cause was that when the third-camp idea showed no substantial signs of success, many suffered a stunning demoralization. It left them with little more than their resentment against Stalinism for destroying hope for socialism, probably for their lifetime. SWPers still had belief in a piece of Russia. The WPers had gone with a political idea that was without a second chute if the first one failed to open.

The vast majority of the WP-ISL came into the movement in the belief that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the opening of the new era for humanity and that its degeneration or failure was reversible. It was far easier to be one of those who came to the movement later than the majority that is in the first half of the 1940s(6) (but before Wohlfarth’s time in the 1950s).

I, for example, joined the Workers’ Party because its people were making available to me a methodology that would enable me to begin to make some sense out of what was happening in the world. My idealism was not primarily dependent upon expectations for the Russian Revolution. It was very different for those of us whose parents had not come out of political struggles in Eastern Europe. Being in “the movement” meant that I was beginning to understand why a depression broke out when I was eight years old, why a new unionism began was I was twelve, and why a revolution in Spain began three years later, its defeat leading logically to a total war.

Life in the Workers’ Party remained rewarding for me and others of my movement generation as long as we were learning, experiencing the benefits of an open and generous intellectual atmosphere. Boredom set in with the demoralization and consequent rapid growth of bureaucratism. Ideation, or the constant effort to develop a body of theory that helped make some sense out of political developments around the world, died as a collective process.


Wohlfarth, Shane Mage, James Robertson and all the others of their generation came upon us when we were no more than a holding operation Mistakenly, we never talked about it in these terms, but we were living in hope that, just ahead, history would provide that opening which might reverse our slide.

I emphasize the negative only because it gets so little discussion I must add that after more than a year in the SP there were still people who wanted to reform a third camp grouping. It emerged publicly three years later, in 1963, as the Independent Socialist Club of Berkeley. Several years later it became the International Socialists.

It is not by accident that this reconstruction was led by Anne and Hal Draper, the major leaders of the ISL whose optimism and creative-intellectual drive survived. Not long before Hal had written The Two Souls of Socialism. The existence and idealism of this lone piece of original theory to appear in a quarter-century was essential to us. Without such a tool organization is not possible.

Another essential was the optimism generated by the seminal student rebellion that was the Free Speech Movement in 1644. Hal Draper became one of its two leading “adult” participants, senior consultant and a major influence in the formation of the New Left.

It is necessary to conclude by returning briefly to discussion of the ISL’s last days in which pessimism had the lead. It is easy to discount things realized after the fact. Nonetheless, it is true that if a segment of us “Shachtmanites” had taken the initiative to act upon our own pain and analyzed its causes, we would have had the excitement that comes from increased understanding. But that would have required breaking fully from the group without waiting until those without optimism finally dissolved the organization.

Our continued captivity in the vanguard party idea, despite the partial modifications of its elitism made by the WP-ISL, helped make that option impossible. We thought that to go out on our own required the development of detailed analyses and program. Yet we lived on in that wonderland where the liberty for ourselves, that was the first condition for original thinking, came last.

Hindsight is good sight when it prepares us for the future. We might have formed around the idea that “we have no definitive program or viable body of theory in the sense that we once believed we had. What we do have is the commitment to examine all of our ideological heritage and attempt to replace through open discussion whatever has failed us.”

Far out? Much less so than what we did, each and all burying our doubts till it was too late, always refusing to heed what is often called “one’s own best judgment” Even in the worst of times, “in boldness there is genius.”

Wohlfarth and others of his movement generation have explored many more of the islands at the rim of the Trotskyist archipelago than many who came before them. Rather than viewing their odysseys as somehow bizarre, it is possible to view them as part of a single large panoramic experiment for which we all must take responsibility. We do not yet have the kind of information that will make this possible.

Autobiographies do not stop with the publication of a single book.


  1. Named the Workers Party at its inception in 1940. Renamed the Independent Socialist League in 1948, in order to give public recognition that it was a small educational grouping rather than a party.
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  2. Shachtman, Carter, Johnson (C.L.R. James) and Smith, Documents on the Russian Question (New York: Workers Party, 1940).
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  3. “Work Stoppages Caused by Labor Management Disputes in 1945,” Monthly Labor Review May 1946: 72D. Cited in Martin Glaberman, Wartime Strikes (Detroit: Bewick Editions, 1980) 36.
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  4. Irving Howe and B.J. Widick,. The UAW and Walter Reuther (Random House, 1949) 170.
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  5. The WP had so degenerated at this point that we in the West Coast (and  probably other) branches learned of our party’s disgraceful support for Reuther on this matter, only with publication of the Howe-Widick book.
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  6. Stan Weir, “A Requiem for Max Shachtman,” America, vol. 7, no.1 (1973): 69.
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November-December 1988, ATC 17

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