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). Here, we print a contribution from 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.
I certainly would agree with the assessment that the old ISL was, while extraordinarily small, a very lively place intellectually. And it did, in the form of the YSL, play an important role in developing a socialist youth movement.
The problem was that there was no "Third Camp", so the whole thing was a bit of a utopian project. There was of course a "nonaligned bloc", which included such folks as Tito, Nehru, etc. Not an overly savory bunch, but perhaps in retrospect better than the two major camps. In the end, Shachtman also came to the conclusion that the third camp was a myth and joined, rather enthusiastically, the "West." So did [Al] Glotzer, but not [David] McReynolds, who remained a consistent pacifist.
Some, I am sure you are aware, look upon your [AWL's] interest in Shachtman's bureaucratic collectivist theory as a bit strange - because after all those societies, whatever they are called, are almost totally gone. Not me, actually, as I find the theoretical issue, even if of little practical impact, interesting and important in a way. The problem with those societies is that they did work and could perhaps arise again. What I mean is that what was once called "actually existing socialism" did function in some ways not overly badly as economic entities. Of course, every one of them had a repressive, top-down police state structure which I opposed then and now. But work they did. For a while.
The problem is that no other form of "socialism" (why haggle over label?) has worked. I have yet to come across a workable model for socialism that has any chance of surviving. However, socialism survives and I and millions of other are committed to it. But it survives in a social democratic form coexisting in struggle with capitalism. Here I would go in a direction I am sure far removed from where you stand these days. But perhaps that is another discussion.