In Solidarity 242 (18 April 2012), we began 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 reprint an extract from a speech by Phyllis Jacobson given at the “Oral History of the American Left Conference”, organised by the Tamiment Library in New York from May 6-7, 1983.
The conference brought together many of the surviving leading activists of the third camp left to discuss and reflect on their experiences.
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 1949 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.
Phyllis embodied the determination of the best third camp socialists “orphaned” by Max Shachtman’s collapse into Cold War lesser-evilism to continue the anti-Stalinist, democratic-revolutionary socialist tradition as a living political force within the working class.
The text of the speech is reproduced from the New York University Libraries’ transcriptions of the 1983 conference. It has been abridged slightly, and spellings have been altered to match UK style, but it is otherwise unedited.
While most of us who remained left-wingers were opposed to Shachtman’s “realignment” politics, we were in favour of joining the Socialist Party. We wanted a broad socialist organisation, a Debsian party in which all tendencies could function, be represented, speak, and write.
Since we retained the anti-Stalinist and anti-capitalist views of the Workers Party/ISL, we were well aware that we were a minority, that in a sense we had become political orphans. We had not, after all, deserted our political tendency; it had deserted us.
It was for that reason that shortly after we joined the SP, we began to work toward producing a broad socialist publication in which our views — along with those of all other socialist tendencies — would be presented. We met with like-minded comrades and after a good deal of discussion produced a memorandum, a consensus of views, in which we said that there was a vacuum so far as any meaningful socialist literature was concerned, that we felt most keenly the lack of a journal we could read and to which we could contribute articles on such subjects as:
• the changes in American capitalism
• the evolution of the American movements, its history problems and prospects
• the nature of Russian society, the extent and limits of reform the ability of the American working class to emancipate itself
• the relationship between socialism and democracy
We wanted a publication with an international flavour which would carry articles of general interest by European labour and socialist movements. Most important, so far as we were concerned, was that the publication had to be broad in character, not thought of as the political organ of any single political tendency in the socialist movement.
We went on to meet with socialists and radicals outside of the ISL and the SP and, after open and frank discussions, produced a draft statement which was sent out with a covering letter to a large number of people — radicals, socialists, trade unionists, activists and intellectuals, left wingers and social democrats — urging then to become sponsors of the publication. The response was most gratifying. We developed a list of sponsors that covered a wide diversity of views. It included Robert Alexander, Bert Cochran, Erich Fromm, Michael Harrington, Sid Lens, A.J. Muste, and Norman Thomas — to name a few.
New Politics went on to become the kind of publication we had envisaged. The editorial board was composed of leftists and social democrats, some affiliated with the SP, others not. The magazine explored controversial questions through debates and symposia. We developed international contacts, who wrote on general, theoretical subjects, and also took part in discussions on the labour and socialist movements of their own countries.
We concentrated heavily on various aspects of Stalinism, exploring the subject in debate and broad discussion. It was, and remains, an area of central concern for socialists raising the central question of the relationship between socialism and democracy. New Politics was the first socialist publication to publish a translation of the historic “Open Letter to the Party” by Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski. We covered the uprising in Poland and the Prague Spring in depth.
There was extensive coverage of both the labour and the civil rights movements. In areas where there were disagreements, the material was presented in the form of a debate. Herbert Hill’s long article accusing the ILGWU [International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union] of racism was answered by an equally long article by Gus Tyler, defending the union. Over the years, we carried a great deal of material on rank-and-file revolts inside the unions, articles often written by he dissidents themselves.
As socialists, a majority of our editors supported the struggle of these dissidents to democratise their unions. We had articles by and about rank-and-file reformers in the Mine Workers [UMW], National Maritime Union, the Painters Union, International Longshoremen’s Union, to name just a few. In all cases, we opened our pages to the union leaders under attack, inviting their replies.
Latin America received a great deal of attention. We carried articles as politically disparate as those of Robert Alexander and James Petras. Nor were Marxism and general theoretical problems neglected. One of the most sought-after articles for reprint was Lewis Feuer’s “Alienation: the Career of a Concept.” The war in Vietnam was a central concern and was discussed from every point of view most often in debates and symposia.
Two collections of New Politics articles were published by Transaction Books. One was Soviet Communinsm and the Socialist Vision, edited by Julius Jacobson, who also wrote an introduction. The book consisted of the most important articles on Stalinism that had appeared in New Politics. The other was Autocracy and Insurgency in Organized Labor, edited by Burton Hall, a collection of the articles on the labour movement and union dissidence that had appeared in New Politics.
Clearly, New Politics was not a “line” publication in any sense, but rather one in which various left tendencies could and did confront one another. Despite that, despite the fact that our pages were always open to those who were the object of political criticism, there were several sorry episodes over the years resulting in the resignation of groups of sponsors. People might talk about their adherence to democracy and democratic practices, about a multi-tendency journal, but they could not function in a democratic atmosphere. They demanded immunity from political criticism.
New Politics published 45 issues from the end of 1961 to 1973. It started in a period of reawakened consciousness that saw the beginning of the civil rights and the peace movements. We grew along with those movements. The war in Vietnam radicalised an entire generation. For a while it appeared that the anti-war movement might develop beyond its single-issue approach and become a broad radical movement. It never did. The war’s end signalled the end of organised opposition and introduced an era characterised by political frustration and apathy.
Despite the success of the New Left in toppling a president and helping to end the most unpopular war in American history, it remained anti-ideological, never developing the broader political understanding essential for the creation of a new radical, socialist force in the United States. Because it was anti-ideological, it never understood much about the history of socialism or the destructive role of Stalinism. To be sure, there was no socialist movement to help educate it. Finally, it was reduced to warring sects, a few of which became enamoured of violence and terror.
It was the political frustration and apathy that dealt the final blow to New Politics. Never an academic publication, although many academics wrote for us, we depended on writers who were committed, often participants in the political struggles.
The fact that they grew apathetic meant a loss of articles, financial support, and general interest, all of which are essential ingredients for the maintenance of a lively and meaningful publication. Had there been an organisation to sustain us during the bad times, we would no doubt have continued publication and then would have found ourselves caught up in the political reawakening that occurred just a few years later and continues today.
The New Left did leave a positive legacy. Out of it came the feminist and environmental movements, both responsible for enormous changes in American life, both enjoying wide support. The reaction that set in with the rise of Reaganism has been short lived.
Today, too, there is greater interest in socialism, its history, roots and relevance to contemporary life than there has been in years. For that reason, Julie [Jacobson] and I have edited what we hope will be the first volume of an annual publication called Socialist Perspectives which will be out this summer. It contains articles on the anti-nuclear movement, the current economic crisis, the state of the feminist movement, a provocative piece on why black Americans are not socialists, on the New York intellectuals in retreat, a discussion on whether America is modern, on socialist freedom, reflections on fascism and communism, Poland, a comparison between the Prague Spring and the Polish Summer, and a piece on currents within Soviet dissidence. Among the authors are Melvyn Dubofsky, Manning Marable, Alan Wolfe, Julius Jacobson, Daniel Singer, and Jiri Pelikan.
It’s a new beginning and a continuation.
• The rest of the symposium is available online here
• New Politics is still active and produces two journals a year. Its website is newpol.org
• For a 2010 tribute to Phyllis Jacobson by New Politics editorial board member Barry Finger, see here