Revolutionaries in the 1950s

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Samuel Farber

TIM WOHLFORTH’s account of his life with the Shachtmanites (Against the Current, 14 and 15) was a useful and entertaining description of the ‘feel” of the 1950s. Unfortunately, his piece is weak on analysis, and it retrospectively endorses a political perspective with which I would take issue, namely leaving the third camp current and joining the Socialist Workers Party.

The tragedy of the Shachtmanites was that they were perhaps the left group in the United States best suited to attempt the construction of a new Marxist revolutionary synthesis and in the end, missed the opportunity to do so.

Twentieth-century history had de­ livered severe and indeed lethal blows to the very assumptions and foundations of the left. Among these blows were the massive betrayals of social democracy in World War I and its subsequent support for all manners and types of capitalist imperialisms, and the rise of Stalinism.

These and other devastating and unforeseen phenomena-genocidal Nazism and the post-World War II capitalist boom,” among them-required a fundamental rethinking of basic ideas, theories and strategies, not merely the reaffirmation of the fundamental positions of Trotskyism, such as the 1938Transitional Program.

Necessary Revolutionary Revisionism

The Shachtmanites had split with orthodox Trotskyism primarily on the question of the class nature of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, it was no less important that they had also begun to abandon other aspects of Trotskyist political myopia.

Starting in the 1940s, the Workers Party set out on the road of a necessary revolutionary revisionism. However, the Shactmanites did not do so on as complete and self-conscious a basis as might, have been desirable. Thus, as they developed an emphasis on the centrality to the revolutionary socialist vision of workers’ self-management and civil liberties they did not recognize how their new position on these two issues actually brought them closer to revolutionary traditions different from that from which they themselves had emerged.

In fact, an organization such as the IWW with its syndicalism and native American civil libertarianism had been much more emphatic on these matters than the Russian social-democratic tradition in either its mainstream Bolshevik or Menshevik variants. The recognition of points they held in common with the U.S. radical tradition might have played a positive role in the political orientation of the Shachtmanites in later years.

The Chicago YPSLs

I first met the Shachtmanites in January of 1959, not long after Tim Wohlforth had left them to join the SWP. When I first met the group, they had just merged with the Socialist Party and were busily and successfully rebuilding the SP’s youth group-the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL).

The following year I joined the Chicago chapter, a stronghold of the left Shachtmanite youth whose adult mentors and/or equivalents included Anne and Hal Draper, Stan Weir, Sam Bottone, George Rawick and Phyllis and Julius Jacobson. This was then a strong chapter, some sixty young people mostly in and around Hyde Park and the University of Chicago.

I remember them as an intelligent, independent and critical group of folks. Perhaps one could have described them as a group of young apprentice intellectuals provided we understand these were young intellectuals of a most peculiar sort. They were decidedly not the type of left graduate students common in the ’70s and ’80s who are up to date with the latest the theoretical controversies in New Left Review or Telos, let alone those surrounding Derrida, Lacan, Foucault and their critics.

Instead, the Chicago YPSL’s were politicos, the sort of people who regularly read the daily press and translated current events back into our half schematic, half insightful theories. Contrary to the mythology propagated by some workerist comrades in later years, the YPSLs were not “talk-shop” abstentionists.

For example, the Student Peace Union — an important organization in the campaigns against nuclear testing in the early 1960s-was founded and kept alive not by ‘talk-shoppers; but by a tireless, and sizable, group of Chicago YPSLs led by devoted people such as Mike Parker.

While in no way abstentionist, the group as a whole was, tis true, individualistic and consequently somewhat unserious in its organizational functioning. This was a membership that was likely to confuse internal democracy with the very different and in fact antithetical practices of organizational liberalism. It almost goes without saying that the group’s sincere commitment to the working class was totally abstract and almost entirely removed from concrete working-class or union experience.

The group also had a shallow Marxist education, that is, it was completely ignorant of economics and sometimes gave the impression that opposition to the Democratic Party and favoring a Labor Party was the be-all and end-all of revolutionary socialism.

There was also no lack of sectarianism, although again of a most peculiar kind. This was not the usual Trotskyist sectarianism of schematic analyses and programmatic rigidity, but rather that of a moral-political arrogance and self-righteousness that often created unnecessary barriers to convincing other people.

Yet, this self-righteousness was in a sense the other side of the coin of a highly desirable trait; namely, a commitment to telling the truth and a necessary critical distance from the hegemonic currents on the left It was an almost unavoidable, if still rather unhelpful, response to an intellectual climate where cynicism, pragmatism and real-politik had morally and politically bankrupted most of the left.

The Rightward Drift to Liberalism

Yet, these were left Shachtmanites who were completely dominant in the Chicago chapter of YPSL. That was not the case in many other parts of the country where the right Shachtmanites were gradually but surely moving towards liberalism, and, as it eventually turned out for a part of this group, even further to the right.

The question is why? Indeed, this is where Tim’s account leaves us without any analytical dues.

First of all, we must go back to the perspectives developed by the Shachtmanites (and other Trotskyists) during World War II. &The end of the war would be accompanied by massive radicalization and revolutions in the developed capitalist world, and the Western working classes would finally fulfill their historic revolutionary missions.

The failure of this projection left many Shactmanites politically dangling in mid-air without the consolation landing-pad that Third World Stalinism became for other leftists.

As the working class had not made the revolution, these leftists then gave allegiance to other social layers ‘represented by the anti-capitalist leaderships now coming to power. As the Communist Party and even some varieties of Trotskyism thus substituted the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie for the working class, they further substituted a self validated party for revolutionary democratic institutions — that is, soviets — and ultimately gave legitimacy to the new revolutionary bureaucracies as they consolidated their rule.

With respect to the new bureaucracies of the Third World, the Shachtmanites were on firm grounds in refusing to join a good part of the left in the latter’s frequent suspension of their critical and moral faculties.

In this context, I found Tim’s comments frustratingly vague. Tim writes that “humanity is better off for these developments/ but we should not be at the same time accepting these societies as they are.”

I am particularly puzzled since I am familiar with Tim’s sharply critical writings on Cuba, as in Part III, “La Variante Cubana” in his Teorias del Socialismo in el Siglo XX (Mexico City: Ediciones Nueva Sociologia, 1983), which on the whole I find compatible with my own views.

Does the statement “humanity is better off for these developments” mean that if we had been in Cuba, China or Vietnam we should have supported the establishments of one-party states, suppression of the right to strike, and complete elimination of civil liberties? Or should we have forthrightly opposed them?

If we would have taken the latter course, that would have been more than sufficient for those regimes to define us as their intransigent opponents, whether we liked it or not What is then the concrete, practical meaning of Tim’s statements on this question?

Not only did the Shachtmanites find themselves with a failed perspective in the late 1940s and no consolation priz.es, but they also had the great misfortune of having abandoned sectarianism at a difficult time and place, by which I mean in the postwar United States. The Shactrnanites were politically ambitious. They had abandoned sectarianism and also wanted to relate to big, real forces in the world of the major leagues.

But since there were no real big and/or radical movements out in the field they were left with orienting to and debating with the Cold War liberalism of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Now, if you debate in order to win over rather than to demolish, there is no way around sharing and sympathetically accommodating to at least some of the premises of your debating partners. Unfortunately, the relationship of forces between these two currents was extremely uneven and the social reality of the United States in those days was stagnant and conservative. It is therefore not surprising that ADA liberalism ideologically penetrated the Shachtmanites far more than the latter influenced the ADA

A Third-Camp Option

Yet, the alternative to this mistaken course was not the sectarian freeze-dried preservation of cadres. There was a modest alternative of opening up a dialogue-not with ADA liberalism, but with other small but important radical currents sympathetic to “third-camp” politics and to the project of constructing a new revolutionary synthesis. I have in mind a number of native radicals, anarchists and pacifists many of whom eventually organized around A. J. Muste and the journal Liberation.

As described and analyzed in a number of recent studies on the origins of the New Left and the civil rights movement, this broad current played a major role in the peace and Southern Black movements, where it would have been possible to work actively with them.

In fact, the Shachtmanites did cosponsor a third-camp conference with some of these groups in November 1953. But later, when Muste played a central role as a leader of a democratically oriented left regroupment after the 1956 events, Shachtman did his best to sabotage those efforts. By this time he was committed to a rightward course, orienting instead to the fossil remnants of American social democracy as the organizational tool with which to work his way into the Democratic Party.

Ironically, when the right Shachtmanites were carrying out their line inside the civil rights movement later in the 1960s, they succeeded in making a conservative out of Bayard Rustin, who had actually been a former militant leader of the Liberation current and a key activist in the civil rights movement.

Yes, the CP had collapsed in 1956, but many of the fundamental premises of the CP political culture had remained very much alive. Specifically, I have in mind their popular frontism at home and an apologetic pseudo-cultural relativism abroad, by which I mean most of all the idea that we cannot apply to real or self-proclaimed leftists abroad rationally developed norms concerning minimally acceptable political behavior.

Moreover, this political culture of former CPers became a central component of what later became the New Left. It is not too far-fetched to think that a Shachtmanite-Liberation regroupment might have significantly and positively affected this current and consequently the future development of organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society.

In any case, bankrupt social democracy could not possibly have become an attractive and progressive alternative for the thousands of activists who had just left the CPUSA.

The IS: Achievement and Decline

During the mid- and late ’60s, the left Shactmanites, now organized on their own in the Independent Socialist Clubs, and subsequently in the International Socialists, were too weak to constitute a meaningful pro-working-class alternative within SOS. Historically, the ISC-IS tendency can claim significant achievements in its work within the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the California Peace and Freedom Party, the Teamsters union, and in important labor publications. However, these significant successes did little to halt organizational de­ cline, internal depolitization and a gradual erosion of some of the political positions and internal democratic practices that had originally most characterized this tendency.

Neither was the IS tendency strong enough to hold its own while assimilating what was best in the American New Left. Similarly, it was disoriented by the strong influence exerted by the British sister group under the leadership of Tony Cliff. The British Socialist Workers Party, once a creative group, in the 1970s acquired the “Leninist” vanguard itis that it had strongly rejected in its previous “Luxemburgist” years.

The IS was buffeted about by the best and the worst aspects of these two political currents. Moreover, the IS also adopted a “get-rich-quick” political methodology and mentality. Not surprisingly, the failure to obtain quick riches was the major underlying cause of several splits and the devastating hemorrhage of cadres that had taken place by the early 1980s.

November-December 1988, ATC 17

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