Renewing the Third Camp legacy

Author: 
Peter Drucker

Workers' Liberty recently began compiling series of recollections and reflections from activists who had been involved with the “third camp” left in the USA — those “unorthodox” Trotskyists who broke from the SWP USA in 1939/40 to form the Workers Party, and the tradition they built (the Independent Socialist League, and later the Independent Socialists and International Socialists).

The following is a contribution from Peter Drucker, author of Max Shachtman and His Left. It comprises (slightly updated) excerpts from his response in Workers’ Liberty No. 30 (April 1996) to Ernest Haberkern‘s critique of his book (Workers' Liberty Nos. 25 & 27, October 1995 & January 1996). Drucker advocates a Third Camp socialism with room for theoretical pluralism and open to a changing world. Drucker is currently based in Rotterdam, and is a member of Socialistische Alternatieve Politiek (Socialist Alternative Politics), the Dutch section of the Fourth International.


The number of avowed democratic, revolutionary socialists in the world at this moment in history is unfortunately small. We are outnumbered by champions of “the free market”: the class interests represented by their ideology are all too clear. The people running the Chinese and North Korean governments still claim allegiance to Marxism, but it is doubtful whether they fool even themselves. Even within the workers’ movement in capitalist countries, labour, social-democratic and ex-Communist party leaders—decreasingly linked to trade-union bureaucracies, increasingly linked to bourgeois state apparatuses—almost always shy away nowadays from the idea of a socialist transformation of society, focusing instead on the impractical project of giving capitalism some kind of social face. Nevertheless, there are still several thousand democratic, revolutionary, working-class socialists in the world.

Among these socialists there are different traditions and standpoints. There are many explanations for this diversity. The working class itself is diverse, and changing rapidly as capitalism changes. It lives in countries with different economies, political structures and histories. Finally, anyone who tries to understand the world as a Marxist has to grapple with an incredible mass of data, which no single individual or group is capable of mastering alone. Differences of emphasis and interpretation are therefore inevitable and in fact indispensable. The only way to arrive at an accurate Marxist understanding of the world is through dialogue between people with opposing standpoints, who have to try to listen and learn from one another. Among the issues contemporary Third Camp socialists differ on are Leninism and Stalinism.

I have spent my political life entirely in democratic organisations: most recently in the US in the regrouped revolutionary socialist organisation Solidarity, and now in the Dutch section of the Fourth International. I see these organizations as sustaining the best traditions of the Workers’ Party, which made a distinction between “ersatz ‘Leninism’” and its own, critical, anti-authoritarian Leninism, and tried to learn from the best traditions of the Bolshevik Party in 1905 and 1917 by building a “centralized Marxist organization in which the widest and freest discussion is not only ‘tolerated’ but encouraged”. My experience has convinced me that this kind of organisation can be built jointly by people who see themselves as “Leninists” and people who see themselves as “non-Leninists”, as long as they all agree that free-ranging, critical discussion and collectively decided practical activity are both essential.

As for Stalinism, many Third Camp socialists still seem to believe that one’s theory of Stalinism is determinant for the whole of one’s politics. For my part, I do not believe that Stalinism is as central an issue now as it was twenty-five years ago. Of course we should be intransigently opposed to the Stalinist regimes that still survive; of course our socialism has nothing in common with “socialists” who think that these regimes are in any sense “socialist”. But if Third Camp socialists continue to beat the dead horse of Russian Stalinism, we will ensure our political irrelevance to the new times we are living in. That would be a tragedy, I think, above all because anti-Stalinism was not and is not the be-all-and-end-all of Third Camp politics.

We sometimes forget that the concept of the Third Camp was not originally just a way of saying “Neither Washington nor Moscow”, still less the property of those who held a particular theory of bureaucratic collectivism. It was also a way of refusing to take sides between fascism and “democratic” imperialism. It was a way of saying, We will not back any government or elite against another. Our camp is the camp of those who control no governments and belong to no elite, who are struggling for their own freedom and organizing their own movements. We are confident that these struggles will ultimately converge with the revolutionary working class to build a new international force and ultimately to build socialism from below.

Today the Third Camp’s enemies take new forms and are assembled in other camps: triumphant neo-liberalism; Islamic, Hindu, Jewish or Christian fundamentalism; the perpetrators of “ethnic cleansing”; the Wilders and LePens; and others equally ugly. While our basic Marxist starting point remains the same, we face enormous challenges in creating an adequate new body of theory, rebuilding the basic organisations of working-class struggle, and linking up very disparate progressive forces. The political heirs of Max Shachtman cannot do all this on their own, nor should they try to, because other currents from different origins but committed to the same effort are emerging and will emerge. Rather than chewing over old internecine battles, Third Camp socialists should turn outward and towards the future.