The Third Camp socialists in the USA: a symposium of recollections and reflections

Submitted by AWL on 5 January, 2014 - 1:58

In Solidarity 242 (18 April 2012), we began publishing a series of recollections and reflections from activists who had been involved with the “third camp” left in the United States — those “unorthodox” Trotskyists who believed that the Soviet Union was not a “workers’ state” (albeit a “degenerated” one), but an exploitative form of class rule to be as opposed as much as capitalism. They came to be organised under the slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow.”

The assessment of the “third camp” tradition by the majority of the modern-day revolutionary left is bound up with the continuing holy terror of that “original sin”; many Trotskyist groups still see the remaining Stalinist states as some form of working-class rule, and even those that formally do not (such as the British SWP and its international satellites) have superimposed the template of Cold War “my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend”-ism onto the modern world and see such forces as political Islam as progressive potential allies against the dominant (US) imperialism.

Retrospective assessment of the third camp tradition is also coloured by legitimate contempt for the political suicide of its most prominent theoretician and sometime figurehead, Max Shachtman, who eventually became an apologist for US imperialism.

Workers’ Liberty has, over a number of decades, attempted to rediscover and re-examine the tradition of “third camp” socialism, and to attempt to learn from it. This symposium brings together the reflections of activists from both the “first generation” of third camp organisations — the Workers Party, which split from the American SWP in 1940 and became the Independent Socialist League in 1949, before entering the reformist Socialist Party of America in 1957 and dissolving — and the “second generation” — the Independent Socialist Clubs of America (founded in 1967 as a federation of loose third camp groupings on various college campuses which were founded some years earlier), and later the International Socialists (founded in 1968).

The symposium is a work in progress. Currently it is too male-dominated; we are working to interview more women activists, and find more testimonies from them. It is also heavily white. We will seek to address these imbalances as the symposium grows. It does not seek contributions only from those who agree with Workers' Liberty's assessment of the third camp tradition, nor only from individuals who remain active. The symposium also includes some contributions from scholars and historians of the tradition, who were not directly involved in WP/ISL or its successor organisations. It is not an attempt at a comprehensive assessment of the tradition, but merely an insight into the experiences of activism within a tradition we believe deserves to be much better known, and continued.

Click the authors' names below for the interviews and testimonies.

Alongside ongoing work on this symposium, Workers' Liberty has also published In An Era of Wars and Revolutions, a compendium of US socialist cartoons, predominantly from Labor Action, the paper of the Workers Party. For more information on the book, including how to order, click here.

Herman Benson
Herman Benson joined the Socialist Party’s Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) in 1930 aged 15. He was a founding member of the Workers Party, a member of its National Committee and labour editor of its paper, Labor Action. He was a founder of the Association for Union Democracy and its first Executive Director.

Ed Strauss
Ed Strauss joined the Young Socialist League (the unofficial youth section of the ISL) in 1954. He was involved in Students for a Democratic Society during the movement against the Vietnam War, before moving to Britain in the 1960s. He is now a member of Workers' Liberty and is based in Brighton.

Gabe Gabrielsky (Scroll down, below Herman Benson's contribution)
Gabe Gabrielsky was a member of the YPSL and later the IS, leaving the organisation in 1973. Since then he has been active in various trade union and political struggles, including supporting Green Party electoral campaigns. He has also been active in Occupy Wall Street.

Paul Buhle
Paul Buhle was a founder of Radical America and Oral History of the American Left. He is the author of Marxism in the United States, and the editor of many volumes of radical illustrations, murals, and comic art. He joined Solidarity in 2000, and continues to write for its magazine Against The Current. He is the biographer of CLR James.

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. He remains active on the left, particularly in anti-war and peace movements. He runs the "Edge Left" website.

Phyllis Jacobson (Text of a speech given at the “Oral History of the American Left Conference”, organised by the Tamiment Library in New York from May 6-7, 1983)
Phyllis was a veteran of the US Trotskyist movement. She was a founding member of the Workers Party/ISL, and founded the third camp journal Anvil in 1952 along with Julius Jacobson, who she met in the Workers Party and who became her partner. In this speech, she discusses her reasons for launching New Politics, a broadly third camp socialist journal, in 1961, and her views on the important of democracy and debate for socialist publications. Phyllis was co-editor of New Politics from 1961 until its first series ended in 1976, and then again from its relaunch in 1986 until her death in 2010.

Peter Drucker
Peter Drucker is the author of the 1994 book Max Shachtman and His Left. He 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.

Tim Wohlforth
Tim joined the Socialist Youth League, the youth section of the ISL, in 1953. He opposed the ISL's rightwards drift towards merger with Socialist Party of America and in 1957 was part of a minority of ISL members who broke with the organisation to join the Socialist Workers Party (the largest "orthodox" Trotskyist group in the USA). He was expelled from the SWP in 1964 and formed the Workers League. He left the League, which he argues had become a cult under the international leadership of Gerry Healy, in 1974 and rejoined the SWP. In more recent years he has moved closer to social democracy and joined the Democratic Socialists of America. In 1994, he published his memoirs, The Prophets' Children, and in 2000 he co-authored On The Edge: Political Cults of the Right and Left with Dennis Tourish. He also writes crime fiction (see his website here).

Eric Lee
Eric joined the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL, the youth section of the Socialist Party of America, into which the Independent Socialist League had merged in 1958) in New York City in 1971. He remained active on the American Left until 1981 when he emigrated to Israel, where he was active in the United Workers Party (Mapam) on whose central committee he served. In 1998, he founded LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement.

Dan Gallin
Dan Gallin joined the Socialist Youth League, the youth wing of the Independent Socialist League, in 1950. He was a contributor to its journal, New International, and its paper Labor Action, until it ceased publication in 1958. He went on to contribute to New Politics. He was General Secretary of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant and Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) from 1970 until 2007, and is currently the Chair of the Global Labour Institute. He joined the Swiss Socialist Party in 1955 and remains a member to this day.

Michael Hirsch
Michael joined the International Socialists (US) in 1972 and was a member until 1986. He served as branch organiser for the group in Boston before moving to the Midwest to join comrades in the steel industry. He has worked as a New York City-based labour journalist and political writer since 1985, and is an editorial board member of the US socialist journals New Politics and Democratic Left.

Al Glotzer (Text of a speech given at the “Oral History of the American Left Conference”, organised by the Tamiment Library in New York from May 6-7, 1983)
Al Glotzer was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 for demanding an open and fair discussion of Trotsky’s views. Along with others such as Max Shachtman and James Cannon, he helped found the American Trotskyist movement. He was a founding member of the Workers Party when it was formed in 1940, and was at various times editor of its paper Labor Action and its magazine New International. When the Workers Party became the Independent Socialist League in 1949, Glotzer served as its National Secretary. As Stalinism remained strong and expanding for three decades after 1949, Glotzer’s horror made him change political course. He ultimately concluded that Stalinism was an inevitable outgrowth of the Russian revolution, which he came to see as being proto-dictatorial from the beginning. He died in February 2010, as a social democrat rather than a revolutionary Marxist.

David Finkel
David Finkel is an editor of Against the Current magazine, published by the US organisation Solidarity.

Marty Oppenheimer (Scroll down below David Finkel's contribution)
Marty Oppenheimer joined the Young Socialist League (YSL), the informal youth group of the Independent Socialist League (ISL — formerly the Workers Party), in 1956 while at graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia). He chaired the Philadelphia “Third Camp Contact Committee”, later the Third Camp Forum, in 1957. Following the ISL’s entry into the Socialist Party (SP), Marty was a member of the SP’s National Committee but resigned when the SP failed to take a clear position against the Vietnam War. He was active in the civil rights movement, and since 1970 has been involved in the development of radical sociology caucuses and the publication Critical Sociology (formerly The Insurgent Sociologist).

Dan La Botz
Dan La Botz is an American labour movement activist, journalist and writer. He is a member of the Solidarity group, and is involved with the New Politics journal.