I grew up in a working-class neighbourhood on the South Side of Chicago. My Dutch immigrant grandfather, John Cornelius La Botz, became a socialist in Chicago during the Great Depression. As socialists, my father Herb and my uncle Bert La Botz were conscientious objectors to participation in World War II. They were drafted, interned in a camp for conscientious objectors in Big Flats, New York, and there became friends with other socialists, some of whom were associated with Dwight McDonald’s Politics magazine (est. 1944), which had broadly third camp politics.
Since I was not born until 9 August, 1945, I would not learn about this until much later. My family’s politics as I grew up, however, were anti-capitalist, anti-Stalinist, pro-socialist, and staunchly pro-union. My mother Betty, a grocery clerk, was fiercely loyal to her union, the Retail Clerks.
While still a junior high school student then living in the small town of Imperial Beach, California on the U.S.-Mexico border, in 1958 or so, my father bought me a subscription to Liberation magazine which had a third camp perspective. I first became aware of actual national politics during the Civil Rights era, but I did not become an activist until I graduated from college in 1968, when I began to participate in anti-war activities. I became a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)while studying literature in graduate school at the University of California at San Diego.
As a teaching assistant to Fred Jameson, a student in classes of Herbert Marcuse, and a classmate at times of Angela Davis, I was exposed to many varieties of left politics between 1969 and 1971. During those years, I also volunteered with the United Farm Workers Union, led by César Chávez, though I was critical of his Mexican nationalist, Catholic, and personality-focused leadership.
Teaching English literature for a year at Humboldt State College in northern California, I joined a local socialist discussion group, and most of us then joined the International Socialists (IS), a third camp socialist organisation. I was recruited to the IS by Walt Sheasby and by two pamphlets he gave me: The Two Souls of Socialism by Hal Draper and The New Era of Labor Revolt by Stan Weir. I felt that the IS’s third camp slogans summed up my views: “Neither Washington nor Moscow!” “The ‘Free World’ is not free and the ‘Communist World’ is not communist!” “For democratic, international, revolutionary socialism”.
Like many left activists of the period, I loathed the Democratic Party of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as the party of war in Vietnam, and admired the IS for having helped to organize the Peace and Freedom Party, for whose presidential candidate (Eldridge Cleaver) I had voted in 1968. I was most attracted to the IS because it put democracy at the centre of the fight for workers’ power and socialism.
In 1968, the IS began a new debate on the question of how to take socialist ideas into the working class. There were many different ideas about this, influenced by European experience, past American experience, and by our own efforts in the few cities where we existed. Once the idea was raised of attempting to get jobs in certain industries in order to be involved in certain unions, then the question of the nature of the unions was raised. Once again, there were a wide variety of ideas - from one comrade who thought the unions were reactionary institutions that needed to be “smashed”, to others who thought it possible to work within union structures. Eventually, most of the group was won to the position that we should seek jobs as rank-and-file workers, become union members and attempt to influence the unions and workers that way. We arrived at the conclusion by the early 1970s that we would build rank-and-file groups in the unions as a way of building a revolutionary party.
Within a year, the group had arrived at a strategic idea of targeted “industrialisation”. This involved moving to selected cities, going into certain industries, and attempting to become members of key union locals [branches]. The group persuaded and encouraged members to carry out this plan. In some cases pressure was applied, but we could not and did not force anyone to do it. I became convinced that the IS strategy made sense, dropped out of graduate school at UCSD, and moved to Chicago in 1971. I worked as a librarian, a social worker, a steel worker, and finally a truck driver.
Over the first few years, as the group industrialised, we turned attention in our meetings and conventions to the work of those comrades who were carrying out this industrialization strategy. This was both to offer them moral support and to provide political guidance. That meant that we tended to neglect those members who hadn’t carried out the strategy and continued to be students, or to work as teachers or social workers. Some former members later told me that they felt rejected, or even that they were told by some IS leader or other that that they were not longer wanted and were driven out of the group at that time. I think there were very few cases of that.
After 1970 or so, our discussions focused on strikes, contract negotiations, and union elections at the local union and national level, and we turned away from most other topics, with the exception of work on African American criminal justice issues (particularly the Gary Tyler case). We also continued to analyse and discuss the developments in Southern Europe and in Angola, Mozambique and South Africa. We attempted to make our branches habitable to the few workers who we now invited to our meetings, which meant focusing on the labour topics where they as workers were often more knowledgeable than us, at least about local issues.
Once industrialised, our strategy was to find allies in the unions - usually the dissidents who had been fighting against the companies and also against the union bureaucrats. Sometimes those were organised groups, sometimes not. We did not organise socialist groups in the union, but rather rank-and-file groups open to all. These rank-and-file groups generally published a newsletter in the workplace or a newspaper for the union. Most of us identified ourselves as socialists to our closest coworkers and some of us sold the IS newspaper Workers Power in the workplace. IS members often sold Workers Power outside of plants and workplaces, both those where we worked and others in the same industries or unions, or in other industries or unions.
In the auto industry, our original idea was to join the Black Power movement in the plants - the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the other groupings. But by the time we got jobs in the plants, that movement had been partly crushed and partly co-opted, and no longer existed. So our auto workers formed an alliance with a group of older (white) Trotskyists who had been in the skilled trades for decades. In the telephone industry , our members found allies among various other leftists and activists. In the Teamsters union, our members joined with various groups and individual members in various cities.
Hal Draper, the long time socialist activist who had been the intellectual leader at the centre of the IS during its first couple of years, came to disagree with the IS's self-conception and organizational strategy. He felt that the IS, like other groups of the era (Fidelista or Guevarista, Maoist or neo-Stalinists), was on its way to becoming what he called a “micro-sect”. Draper left the group with a few other members to create the intellectual and publishing centre which he saw as more consistent with the Bolshevik tradition.
Draper's resignation - the loss of our senior intellectual - was a serious blow to our young group. Draper's long-time comrade, Stan Weir, who had decades of experience in industry and in unions, stayed with the IS. Recognizing how Draper's resignation might demoralize the group, Weir toured the United States speaking to our branches and encouraging us to continue on the path to the working class that we had adopted.
Draper's position attracted few followers among our young members who were either working on the staff of our organization or getting jobs in industry. They had already made their commitment to a certain course.
We IS members in the Teamsters’ union worked with rank-and-file activists to create a democratic and militant union reform organisation. We succeeded in inspiring protest demonstrations around the National Master Freight Agreement in 1975, forced the union to call a national strike, and then some of us led wildcat strikes in freight and at UPS in some cities. Based on that work we founded Teamsters for a Democratic Union. I later wrote a book, Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, about the movement.
The recessions of 1973-75 and 1979-81 took the wind out of the Teamster rank-and-file rebellion of that era, just as auto plant closings and steel mill shutdowns stifled activism in those unions for years. When its perspective collapsed, the IS splintered into three groups which became the IS, Workers Power, and the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The split was partly manufactured by Tony Cliff and the British Socialist Workers Party. I remained loyal to the IS, but had many friends in Workers Power, both third camp organizations.
After working in the early 1980s as a reporter at the Chicago Daily Defender, as the founding organiser of the Comité Latino on Chicago’s North Side, and as an organiser for the House Staff Association of Cook County Hospital, I spent much of the late 1980s and 90s married and raising three sons. I became principally a writer and a college teacher (having returned to get a PhD in history), though still active in social movements such as there were.
Unable to continue with its earlier party building strategy, in 1979 IS members who wanted to continue rank-and-file industrial organising had created Labor Notes, first a newspaper and later also an educational center. I wrote for Labor Notes and I also wrote the very popular organizing manual, The Troublemaker’s Handbook. I also wrote a series of books about the Mexican labour movement — The Crisis of Mexican Labor, Mask of Democracy, and Democracy in Mexico — and in 1995 working with the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Authentic Labour Front (FAT) began to publish Mexican Labor News and Analysis. I also visited Indonesia and wrote a book about its labour and social movements, Made in Indonesia, attempting to apply a Marxist analysis to the history of that country.
In 1986, the IS re-merged with Workers Power and also joined with former Socialist Workers Party members to create Solidarity, a multi-tendency organisation, amongst which were many third camp socialists like myself. A few years later, in the late 1990s, I worked for one year for Global Exchange, the radical human rights group in California just as the American left began to revive with the Battel of Seattle
After returning to Cincinnati 2000, I became one of the central organisers of a city-wide movement against police killing of African American men. A few years later I returned to immigrant organizing working for several years with Latino immigrants in Cincinnati. I subsequently took a more active role in Solidarity, joined the editorial board of New Politics, and in 2010 while remaining a Solidarity member ran as the Socialist Party USA candidate from Ohio for the US Senate. In 2011, when Occupy Wall Street appeared, I joined the Occupy movement in Cincinnati.
Capitalism has grown more powerful (if more crisis ridden) during my lifetime, but Stalinism, in both its remaining state systems and in various political parties in many countries, remains a threat to the future of democratic socialism. The third camp political principles of opposition to capitalism and bureaucratic collectivism, the understanding of the centrality of the idea of democracy, and the vision of a revolutionary transformation to a democratic socialist society remain central to me life and action.
Dan La Botz is an American labour movement activist, journalist and writer. He is a member of the Solidarity group.