Standing Fast part 2: Julius Jacobson (1922-2003)

Submitted by Anon on 26 November, 2003 - 11:22

Julius Jacobson - Julie to his many friends and comrades - was the founder and editor of the American socialist journal, New Politics. He died in March of this year. Barry Finger continues his appreciation of his life and work.
During the 1950s Julie became editor of The New International - a journal of the Independent Socialist League/Workers' Party, the Trotskyist organisation founded by Max Schachtman. But by the middle 50s, Shachtman was shifting rapidly to the right purportedly in pursuit of new opportunities for movement-building.

The Communist Party was in disarray, traumatised by Khrushchev's revelations at the 20th Party congress and the Hungarian revolt, and rent by an ensuing faction fight that could not be resolved within the framework of a unified organization. It was caught, as the ISL stated, between the Russian ruling class and the American working class.

This raised anew the question of a broader socialist movement predicated on finding common ground for regroupment and unity with that wing of the CP that was beginning to find its own path towards recognizing the centrality of democracy for socialism. The search on the part of Shachtman and the majority for a minimum platform, understandable in the abstract, signified in practice an opening to the right. That is, the Shachtmanites became ever more unwilling to advocate - in a nondisruptive manner - revolutionary politics and Third Camp socialism as they folded up shop inside the near moribund Socialist Party.

Julie, who had always maintained close personal relations with Shachtman, identified and exposed the regressive trends and interpretations in the latter's writings that represented a rupture with the ISL's historic past and which invited intellectual disorientation to envelope the movement's remnants. "Leninism, The Comintern and Putschism" was Julie's answer to Shachtman's final article in the Fall 1957 issue of the New International entitled "American Communism a re-examination of the Past." It unfortunately had to be privately printed and circulated, having been submitted for a scheduled issue that was never to appear.

Painful as this was to Julie, it became increasingly apparent that Shachtman was beginning to manipulate the lesser evil comparison of democratic capitalism with Stalinism as a rationalization for abandoning socialist politics.

Julie would concede that democratic capitalism was a "lesser evil," but insisted, in the WP-ISL tradition, that supporting western capitalism against Stalinism could only perpetuate a Cold War symbiosis that undermined democracy globally.

For a brief moment following the absorption of the ISL into the Socialist Party, it seemed that the latter might enjoy a revival, anticipating new support from the fallout from the CP and the merger of the AFL and CIO. But the old movement leadership, once inside the SP, began to move to the right and with few exceptions to the extreme right.

They were shortly to plunge the organisation into a series of disastrous and debilitating factional fights in their new found zeal to abandon independent political action for a political realignment of the Democratic Party.

Still, this interregnum was an intellectually fecund period for Julie. He produced a groundbreaking trilogy of articles, actually the material for a small volume, on The Origins of the Communist Movement in the US that appeared in successive issues of The New International during 1955 and 1956. And he extended his researches contributing as an associate author to the Howe and Coser volume on The American Communist Party in 1957, one of the handful of truly seminal treatments of this subject and the only one to refract the topic through the critical lens of Third Camp socialism.

Julie never entered the SP after the dissolution of the ISL, although Phyllis for a period was its Manhattan organizer. Yet it was quite clear to the Jacobsons that the newly regrouped SP would not be the antidote to the frailty of organized socialism in the US. The promise of radical renewal was to be found elsewhere, in the emancipation struggles of southern blacks, in the emergence of a militant civil rights and civil libertarian consciousness in the north and in the small, spontaneous outbursts of peace and anti-war sentiment on campus, all of which portended the birth of a new left. The immediate problem as they saw it was "not how to solve all the problems of socialist politics, theory and organization but ratherÂ… how to establish a sphere in which these problems could be seriously discussed."

They proposed a new magazine which would grapple with the issues pioneered within the independent, Third Camp framework - the impact of totalitarianism on the concept of socialism, the post-Stalin changes in Russia, the meaning of socialist democracy and the dangers of bureaucratisation, the relevance of socialist anti-militarism in a world living in the shadow of the bomb, the role of the modern working class, and the ubiquitous impact of racism on American society.

But it would also be a journal in which the "sole criterion of editorial selection [would] be neither conformity nor heterogeneity, but rather the ability of articles to stimulate thought and debate, or to contribute in some way to thinking out acute questions of politics and theory. It can be taken as a principle that an article which stirs one to refute it is an article eminently worth printing - whether an editorial board or any editor agrees with it or not -far more than an article of impeccable sentiments which stirs no thought at all." New Politics would be a journal to engage the left, not to hector or lecture to it from on high; a journal that would assist the left in resurrecting itself.

It was an idea met with the enthusiastic reception of leading American socialists, writers, university professors and trade unionists. Included among its original editors and sponsors were Hal Draper and Herbert Hill - who more than any aside from the Jacobsons themselves were to shape the journal - as well as such notables as Harvey Swados, James Baldwin, Dan Wakefield, Sid Lens, A J Muste, Norman Thomas, Herbert Gold, Bert Cochran, Patrick Gorman, Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington.

It was an illustrious list to be sure, but a list also all too typical for its time with its notable and jarring lack of women sponsors and editorial members. Not even Phyllis was recognised as editor until the second series.

Although its endorsers and contributors ranged from the reformist to the revolutionary, the journal clearly intended to stake out for itself an independent democratic Marxist presence in the intellectual life of the left. In this it distinguished itself from the other significant journals of the left at the time: Studies on the Left, with, what Julie felt, was a "clear enough pro-Eastern bias," the social democratic Dissent and the anarchist-pacifist monthly Liberation.

The imprimatur of the Third Camp was immediately impressed on the journal by Julie himself in such remarkable essays as "American Socialism and Thermonuclear War;" "The Limits of Russian Reform" and "Isaac Deutscher: The Anatomy of an Apologist." Some of these were later gathered, along with pieces of a similar Third Camp orientation by other New Politics contributors, in a volume edited by Julie, Soviet Communism and the Socialist Vision (1972).

These remain signal contributions that can be reread profitably today as luminescent roadmaps of an independent socialist politics; one which eschews any accommodation with authoritarianism or "democratic capitalism"of that sort that all too often litters and neutralises socialist politics.

He insisted that the relevance of socialism is crucially and inseparably linked to a policy of peace and freedom. "Peaceful solutions can be offered short of freedom but they can not be socialist solutions (nor do I believe that they can assure peace) because socialism is freedom and a policy that denies freedom, denies socialism." Put otherwise, these non-socialist "solutions" cannot really bring peace because they leave in place class systems with an inherent drive toward war.

With his extended discussion of Deutscher, Julie grappled with a strain of radicalism that was to make deep inroads into the more sophisticated interstices of the New Left and beyond. "Given his [Deutscher's] views of socialism, which eliminate democracy as an integral part of socialism and given his conviction that only the inevitably ('predetermined') evolved system of Stalinism could bring this method about, there is no ground for repudiating Stalin's methods other than an irrelevant squeamishness. Perhaps it was not necessary to slander the old Bolsheviks with the charge of being agents of foreign imperialism and on Hitler's payroll, but whatever reasons might be advanced, from Deutscher's point of view and analysis, if logic prevails, the old Bolsheviks had to be removed one way or another, since it can easily be established that their very existence was a serious menace to the consolidation of Stalinism politically and therefore an impediment to its historic "socialist" mission of raising Russia from the wooden plow to the tractor."

Deutscher created the "theoretical justification for terror whose practical significance" is extended, in echoes that reverberate even today, to justify the "use of terror and the liquidation of democracy and democrats" not least of all in Cuba, as it has in China and Vietnam.

Imbued by the animating impulse of socialism from below, Julie became an extraordinarily keen observer and consistently sympathetic ally both of the militant wing of the civil rights movement and of the rising tide of campus radicalism in the 60s.

His "Defense of the Young," "Coalitionism: From Protest to Politicking" and the introduction to The Negro and the American Labor Movement (1968), which Julie edited, brought into sharpest relief the contrasting politics of the third camp with that of his old comrades. These he now condemned as having debased the ideals of socialism by shilling for the Democrats and becoming "paid political agents of the reactionary Meany leadership of the AFL-CIO" or who, in their more radical "democratic left" wing, having "grown tired, disillusioned and frustrated over the failure of independent socialist politicsÂ…moved in an increasingly rightward direction, discovering en route all sorts of wondrous things in liberal (and not so liberal) institutions and values."

He indicted them for setting upon themselves the task of "impeding and reversing the radicalization of the young" and of "reducing the Negro-labor alliance to a fetishism."

With respect to the latter, Julie was particularly merciless and impatient. "What," he asked in the 1960s, "is either extreme or unfair in the demand that Negro workers who have so long been oppressed be partially compensated for the crimes against them (including crimes by racist unions which deprived them of a livelihood) by giving them preferential consideration in hiring practices?" The point can easily be extended to the demand for reparations today.

The larger issue is that the blight of racism and inequality are not merely historic outrages, but ongoing offenses that demand pervasive institutional and social redress and compensation. Affirmative action was, in Julie's estimation, a "small democratic step in the direction of social justice."

Those among the "Democratic Left" who so relentlessly insisted on a black-labor alliance never once outlined what the labor component of that alliance should look like. Could a militant civil rights movement be expected to accommodate itself to a conservative and bureaucratic trade union bureaucracy? And if so, at what cost?

Julie warned that those who perpetually counsel the need for such an alliance, and who placed no preconditions on that the trade union movement acknowledge and cleanse itself of racism, could no longer claim to be primarily concerned with advancing the cause of social reform. They had, in word and in deed, become brokers for the establishment within the civil rights movement, attempting to effect a nondisruptive framework, a pact of institutional quiescence, as a pre-condition for Democratic Party advancement.

As for what cost, Julie was specific - "the abandonment of political independence and socialist opposition."

Continued next issue

  • This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of New Politics. Subscription details:

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