The Third Camp: “Neither victims, nor executioners”

We continue our symposium of recollections and reflections from activists involved in the “third camp” left in the United States with a piece by David McReynolds.

Although not from the Trotskyist third camp tradition, David worked closely with many who were, including Max Shachtman.

He joined the Socialist Party of America in 1951, and in 1958 was involved in negotiating the merger of the Independent Socialist League into the SP. In 1980, he became the first openly gay man to run for the US Presidency.


My first contact with the term “Third Camp” was probably in 1950, at a joint conference of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Youth League (youth arm of Max Shachtman's Independent Socialist League) in Los Angeles.

I had not yet joined the Socialist Party, and the YSL objected to my being seated, since, in the days of McCarthy, I might be a government agent. The SP vouched for me and I took part, listening with care to the definition of the Third Camp by the SYL speaker. (At that time I was a radical pacifist, who had come under the influence of AJ Muste and Bayard Rustin — I joined the Socialist Party a year later).

My sense was that the definition of “Third Camp” held by those close to Shachtman was essentially some kind of “third armed camp”, with little awareness that the events of August 1945 required radical new thinking by socialists.

In 1953 AJ Muste urged me to go to Chicago for a “Third Camp” conference, sponsored by a radical pacifist group called The Peacemakers. I did go, and was entrusted by Muste with the first draft of the program for an official Third Camp movement. That project didn’t go anywhere — Muste had made what I felt was the error of setting up a group which would consist of any organisation which subscribed to the Third Camp document — but the only two groups that could sign were the Peacemakers and Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League. The project died on the vine.

Muste had his hands full with projects. Shachtman, for his part, was moving toward trying to enter the Socialist Party (which he did in 1958). So the abortive Third Camp movement of 1953 ended without immediate offspring.

Muste, who was committed to revolutionary change (nonviolent — he was a Gandhian) felt that in the 1950s the scene in the US was hopeless, and the hope was in places such as Africa.

The War Resisters League, in 1953, sent Bill Sutherland to Ghana to aid in training people in nonviolent resistance. At that time Ghana was called the Gold Coast. Bill remained in Africa until just a year or two ago, when he returned to the US due to ill health. He worked also in Tanzania. Both Muste and Bayard Rustin had close ties to the anti-colonial forces in Africa and, of course, in India.

So while this didn't fit Shachtman’s definition of a Third Camp (and Max himself had, by the time of his death, moved far to the right, essentially joining one of the camps), it was the hope that in a nuclear armed world the neutral forces of India, Africa, and the Communist Parties that were breaking away from Moscow offered hope of an international force independent of the “two camps”.

There is no question in my mind that at the start of the Cold War, when the US was allied with every right-wing dictatorship, and Moscow had presided over a police state in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, many good people felt they had to make a choice between one side or the other. Those of us who took a Third Camp position did so in part from a moral revulsion against the two camps.

In 1962 the third camp took on new life and new meaning when Muste, and Bayard Rustin, flew to London to join the campaigners around the Committee of One Hundred and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to set up an organisational framework which would reject affiliations from either Washington or Moscow.

This group was called The International Confederation for Disarmament and Peace (ICDP). Several groups affiliated with it, including a French campaign led by Claude Bourdet, the official Yugoslav Peace group, at least one social democratic peace group in Sweden, the War Resisters League in the US and, eventually, also the American Friends Service Committee and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I think (but am not sure) that the Socialist Party was also affiliated.

It should be noted that Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League was not involved at any point in the formation of the ICDP. The true heart and soul of the ICDP was Peggy Duff, who had played so key a role in the Aldermaston Marches, and who came out of the Labour Party. (Of which she was in fact an active member until finally, during the Vietnam War, she felt she had to resign from the Labour Party).

The World Peace Council (WPC), a framework organised and funded by Moscow, had sent representatives to London in hopes of being able to affiliate with the ICDP, but their application was gently rejected. (Moscow would, at times, refer to ICDP as a “Western agency”, but the fact the Yugoslavs affiliated to the ICDP, and later the two main Japanese peace groups, one dominated by the Communist Party, the other dominated by the Socialist Party, made the charges baseless).

The ICDP held Council meetings in Canada, in Iceland, and at one point in Milan, at a time when the Italian Communist Party controlled the city and was able to provide hospitality to ICDP. At crucial points — such as the Warsaw invasion of Czechoslovakia — ICDP was absolutely clear in opposing Soviet intervention, as it had been clear in condemning US intervention in Vietnam.

In some ways the most useful thing the ICDP was able to do was to establish, in cooperation with the World Peace Council and the War Resisters International, a conference in Sweden on the Vietnam situation. This was something the Vietnamese had desperately needed — a window to the West which couldn't be written off as Soviet dominated (as would have been true if only the WPC had sponsored the conference).

Peggy Duff was in close contact with the Vietnamese officials, both in Paris, and in her trips to Vietnam — the two of us went to Saigon in 1966 to meet with dissident Buddhists and she later went to Hanoi.

The problems when led to the decline of ICDP (it eventually merged into the International Peace Bureau, situated in Geneva) were simple. The ICDP was too radical for the American pacifists — except for the War Resisters League. After all, the ICDP was on good terms with the Italian, Yugoslav, and Japanese Communist parties — as well as excellent terms with the independent peace movements in Europe, and the social democratic peace groups in Finland, Sweden, etc. Without serious funding it was impossible to move beyond the two people who ran the office in London.

Finally, Peggy Duff fell in with cancer, and died — there was no one to take her place. At her death she had begun to open doors to democratic secular movements in Palestine and there were surely whole chapters that needed to be written.

The great power of the European nuclear disarmament movement was, I am convinced, one of the reasons Gorbachev felt he could risk moving to end the Cold War. I was happy to serve on the Council of ICDP during its life time, and travelled in Europe and Japan helping build foreign opposition to the US intervention in Vietnam.

The Third Camp movement of ICDP could have taken as its slogan Camus' line “Neither victims, nor executioners”. It reflected a realisation that nuclear war was a genuine threat to human survival, and that neither Washington nor Moscow could escape from that trap. The hope was in those countries which were non-aligned, and those movements within the two blocs which were in the process of breaking away (i.e.., the Italian CP, etc.).

ICDP succeeded, to the degree it did, precisely because it did not have a rigid statement of political goals, and sought to align itself to the forces in the Third World which were trying to avoid being drawn into the Cold War.

• Third camp symposium here

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