A journey through the third camp left

Submitted by AWL on 20 January, 2014 - 11:49

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).

Here we publish an autobiographical recollection from Ed Strauss, a Workers’ Liberty member based in Brighton, who was involved in the US third camp left in the 1950s and 60s. To view the other contributions in the symposium, click here.

I first became acquainted with independent socialism in 1954, when I went to the University College in Albany, New York. I was soon recruited to the YSL (Young Socialist League) by a local member who was an organiser for the International Paperworkers’ Union, affiliated to the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO), which had not yet merged with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

I eventually joined and received my party card in 1955. Our “candidate” branch never became a full one, as that required five members, and we never had more than four. We did periodically visit the large branch in New York City for demonstrations, educational events, and socially.

The YSL was the unofficial youth group of the Independent Socialist League (ISL), which had been called the Workers Party from 1940-1949. The ISL and its official youth section, the SYL (the Socialist Youth League established in 1946), were on the US attorney general’s list of subversive organisations, along with the Communist Party and its many front groups, and the Socialist Workers Party, the Trotskyist group from which the Workers Party/ISL had split in 1939/40. This was the period of extreme McCarthyism, with witch hunting, red scares, official loyalty oaths, and mass repression. The ISL staunchly defended the Stalinist CP on civil liberty grounds, contending that they should only fight it with political discussion and argument. It took its own case to the Federal Court, claiming that it did not advocate violence and that its leader, Max Shachtman, should have his passport returned and be allowed to travel, and it eventually won. The atmosphere of fear and repression far exceeded anything experienced in Britain.

The YSL was formed in 1954 by a merger between the SYL and the left-wing of the Socialist Party’s youth group, much to the disgust of the “adult” SP. By then, the ISL/YSL had fully developed a third camp, “Neither Washington nor Moscow” position. It believed in the vital connection between socialism and real democracy, and had a bureaucratic collectivist analysis of the Soviet Union (with a few members preferring a state capitalist analysis). It did not see itself as a vanguard centralist party, but rather as a broad, multi-tendency organisation, which could support agitation and provide education and some leadership for a revolutionary workers’ movement, but would not be involved in giving directions. Rosa Luxemburg, as well as Lenin, was seen as a historical guide.

In our locality, our activities were somewhat restricted. However, I was able to organise a left student forum in my college under the name “Society of Critical Thought”. It attracted a mixture of newly-political left liberals and children of people who had a CP or Progressive Party (which organised Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential campaign) background.

Over the years, we were involved in agitation on student issues and organised open meetings with speakers from the different US socialist groups, as well as anarcho-syndicalists connected to the Spanish FAI/CNT.

The college authorities were not unfriendly — many were liberals or closet leftists. There was never any hostile reaction from other students; but this was New York State, not mainstream America.

In the summer of 1958, after more than a year’s contentious discussion, the YSL, partly because of its own weakness, merged organically with the remnants of the Socialist Party’s official youth section, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), becoming a youth section of the SP. A small faction broke away and rejoined the SWP. The ISL itself, humiliatingly, was not allowed to merge with the SP, which was perhaps fearful of being branded as subversive. It had to disband and hand over its assets, and its members had to be admitted to the SP as individuals. The SP itself had recently re-merged with the Social Democratic Federation, a 1936 rightwards breakaway, giving the organisation a respectable right-social-democratic image. Many, including myself, never really felt committed to it, and, although remaining nominal members for a few years, drifted away or turned to other political currents.

It was not until 1964 that Hal Draper in California helped to form the first “Independent Socialist Club” .Shortly thereafter, in 1966, he published Two Souls of Socialism. At the same time the main WP/ISL leader, Max Shachtman, deserted the quite heroic role that he had played and took a sad path, beyond right-wing social democracy, becoming a supporter of the Democratic Party and the violently anti-leftist AFL-CIO trade union bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, I began teaching and joined the American Teachers Union. I made some contact with members of the New York State Liberal Party, a social democratic party which began in 1944 as a break-away from the New York State American Labor Party after it had been taken over by the Stalinists. I could not identify with any other group locally in the mid-Hudson Valley. In the following year, I went to graduate school in Syracuse University, and joined a newly formed chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

The SDS had originated from a social democratic formation (the League for Industrial Democracy), but the student section had been disowned by that organisation after the students had adopted the radical, “New Left” Port Huron Statement advocating participatory democracy. We were involved in black civil rights actions locally and organised a meeting in a large hall for a visit by Norman Thomas, a former Socialist Party presidential candidate. We were afraid that that the name “socialist” would generate little interest. However, when I stepped out to introduce the visitor, I saw that more than a thousand students and townspeople had filled the hall to overflowing. To me, this was a sign that the “New Left” had really arrived and that the fear of repression was disappearing.

I spent 1964-5 studying in Yugoslavia. The Titoist state was present in the background, but life was relatively free. I lived with a very political family, and was conscious of the contrast between the beautiful socialist aesthetic, the partisan war victory and the myth of “workers’ control”, on the one hand, and the state’s autocratic, though subtle, repression on the other. This experience strengthened my libertarian communist leanings. I had to leave rather under a cloud, because I had expressed my anti-authoritarian analysis of Titoism and was warned that this would be reported to the secret police.

I came to England in 1965, and made contact with Tony Cliff and the International Socialists (later the British SWP), the anarcho-syndicalists in London, and the anarchist Freedom Press. My wife had been in the Socialist Review Group, the predecessor of IS/SWP, in the 1950s. My wife and I became active in the group around Chris Pallis (aka Maurice Brinton), which published Solidarity.

We returned to the USA, where we lived from 1965-1969, first in Albany, New York, and then in the Dartmouth, New Hampshire, area. We became very involved with SDS and the anti-Vietnam War campaign, as well as the movement for black civil rights. In the area around Dartmouth, the SDS began to emerge as a nascent mass movement, organising demonstrations, meetings, marches, and educational events.

We helped to run a local radical printing press, the Wooden Shoe Press. We also assisted the draft resistance movement, aiding young people fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft. I remained in touch with the third camp scene – the Independent Socialist Clubs, the New Politics journal, and other ex-ISLers, and I tried to spread third camp ideas among the local comrades.

During these years, the Maoist Progressive Labor Party appeared on the local scene. It not only opposed the Vietnam War, but also advocated support for the Ho Chi Minh leadership. This led to fundamental disagreements, resulting in the fragmentation and break-up of SDS in 1969-1970.

In 1969, the anti-war movement on the Dartmouth Campus culminated in the occupation of the College Administration building. The police were called, there were mass arrests and 40 students were sent to prison for 30 days. We both lost our jobs, and returned to England, where we lived in Hull until 2008.

I joined the local branch of IS, left briefly, and rejoined in 1971. I took part in the local anti-apartheid campaign and the occupation of the admin building on the University of Hull campus, demanding disinvestment from South Africa and support for the dockers’ strike. I broke with IS in 1973, because of the increasingly authoritarian domination of the group by the centre. In Hull we were then only vaguely aware of the AWL’s predecessor, the Trotskyist Tendency, and the reasons for its expulsion from IS.

During the following two decades, I was very involved in college teaching. I took part in some of the activities of our NAFTHE branch (now part of the University and College Union), and maintained an interest in radical left politics. It was only in 1990 that I first saw the AWL’s Workers’ Liberty magazine. During the past twenty years, I subscribed to this journal and then to the paper, Solidarity, occasionally contributing to the press fund. I realised that the AWL had evolved a political position very similar to that of the ISL, which is basically the position that I have always held. I became more involved and finally decided in 2013 that I should formally join the AWL and give as much active support as I could. Although contemporary British reality is very different from that in the USA in the 1940s and 50s, the AWL’s continuation of the ISL’s political line is very striking.

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