The heart of the “third camp”

Submitted by Matthew on 9 May, 2012 - 10:31

In Solidarity 242, 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. This week, we publish contributions from Herman Benson, one of the last surviving founder members of the 1939/40 Workers Party and former industrial editor of its paper Labor Action, and Gabe Gabrielsky, who was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League and later the International Socialists.

They 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).

Longer versions of the contributions will be available to read online here.

Daniel Randall

The origins of the “Third Camp”

Herman Benson joined the Socialist Party’s Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) in 1930 aged 15. He was a founding member of the Workers Party, a member of its National Committee and labour editor of its paper, Labor Action. He was a founder of the Association for Union Democracy [] and its first Executive Director.

The “Third Camp” originated with the Workers’ Party (“Shachtmanites”) in response to the outbreak of World War Two. Not a worked-out program or policy, it was essentially a slogan.

As such, it was intended to put as sharply and as thought-provoking as possible our opposition to what we denounced as the two warring imperialist camps. But it took on double significance. It made clear, in the context of world war, our clear opposition to the two rival social systems: capitalism versus the new social order of bureaucratic collectivism as represented by the Soviet Union under Stalin.

I should modify that statement slightly. Even before the Workers’ Party finally reached a consensus on bureaucratic collectivism as a social system, we agreed that, however you defined the Soviet Union, its invasion of Poland and the Baltic states and its attack on Finland were oppressive imperialist acts that we denounced, just as we denounced the imperialist acts of the capitalist powers.

And so, the slogan of Third Camp clearly distinguished us from Leon Trotsky, who still characterised the Soviet Union as a “workers’ state”, and saw its invasion into small capitalist countries as giving a bureaucratic impulse to the socialist revolution. And it distinguished us from the Socialist Workers’ Party [USA, no relation to the modern-day British group of the same name] whose Jim Cannon advised crudely that social revolutionaries should consider themselves the best soldiers in the Red Army.

As originally put forward by the Workers’ Party, there was no ambiguity or evasion in the concept of Third Camp. Against the two warring camps and against the two exploitive social systems was the third proletarian camp of socialist revolution.

In 1939/40, Leon Trotsky, the WP, and the SWP shared one prognosis for the years to come. We were all certain that, just as in the aftermath of World War One, World War Two would be followed be a powerful wave of revolution; proletarian, social revolution. At one point, in the debate between Trotsky and the WP, Trotsky even suggested that the outcome of the war and the coming revolutions might test the potential of the proletariat as a ruling class and the validity of Marxian socialism as a program.

But hopes for workers’ revolution proved illusory. The war ended with a clear victory for the Allied camp, followed by the long period of cold war between the two former allies: the United States, still capitalist, and the Soviet Union, still under Stalin.

With the socialist revolution now a distant objective, the slogan of Third Camp lost its rallying, revolutionary, socialist, proletarian quality and became diffuse and shifting.

The Third Camp could no longer be presented as a workers’ revolutionary alternative to capitalism and Stalinism, and so its proponents sought policies and programs of action in opposition to the aims of the two main powers. They looked for a Third Camp in various regimes or social movements that tried to maintain a neutral role independent of the two: movements for the end of colonialism, Yugoslavia, India, etc. Nevertheless, the slogan of Third Camp could still have resonance: Neither Washington nor Moscow! It was the same slogan, but serving a new purpose.

But the world changed. A new period opened with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war: internal battles in newly liberated countries, rise of China, Arab Spring, terrorism.... Third Camp? Third? Against which two is the third now counterposed? In our new world, it seems to me, the notion of a Third Camp, having lost its revolutionary socialist soul, has become less a program of action and more a kind of mystical consolation for its adherents, a reassurance that somehow, somewhere, out there is a powerful social force that will turn our ideals of a just, democratic, peaceful society from a dream into a reality.

What is involved here transcends clarification or definition of Third Camp in the complex period in which live and in which we seek to remain true to our ideals of social justice.

For me, once the Third Camp is stripped of its revolutionary proletarian heart, the discussion recalls what Leon Trotsky wrote in the early days of World War Two, not long before he was murdered:

“The second world war.... subjects the proletariat to a new and perhaps decisive test. If this war provokes, as we firmly believe, a proletarian revolution, it must inevitably lead to the overthrow of the bureaucracy in USSR and regeneration of Soviet democracy on a far higher economic and cultural basis than in 1918.... If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime... the eclipse of civilisation…..

“If the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society ended as a Utopia.” (From: ‘The USSR in War’ in In Defence of Marxism, 25 September 1939)

Obviously, the alternatives projected by Trotsky did not materialise. There was no proletarian revolution, nor was there “the eclipse of civilisation” in the form of a dominant authoritarian bureaucracy. But for Trotsky, the failure of the proletariat to take power after this war could pose the question of whether the proletariat was capable of fulfilling its “mission” and therefore whether the socialist program had proven to be a Utopia.

For Trotsky, the socialist programme and Marxism were inseparably linked. Marxism sees the achievement of socialism dependent upon the elevation of the proletariat into a ruling class. Trotsky’s line of thought could bring Marxism, but not necessarily socialism, into question as a Utopia. The “socialist programme,” however conceived, is not necessarily identical with proletarian revolution. Socialism as an ideology or programme preceded Marxism. The question remains: Is socialism sans proletarian power a Utopia?

I was involved in the “transforming” of the WP into the ISL. In fact, at the time, I was the organiser of the WP branch in New York City. In practice, by the time we changed our name, it was less a transformation than a relabeling. Without revolutions in the world, America retained its democracy. It had not moved closer to fascism, which actually was in retreat. The idea that a small group of dedicated socialists could become a vanguard party leading the workers to power was obviously a dream. The change from “party” to “league” was a simple recognition of reality. There was no soul-searching discussion of the profound implications of that change in name. We drifted into it. The guiding thought was that the ISL would be not a party but a “tendency” to keep alive the idea of socialism (as we envisaged it) for future generations.

The ISL remained a sect, not only in size but in conception. Ideologically we still drew inspiration from Leninism and the Russian Revolution. We could hold two clashing idea simultaneously: accept the reality that the notion of a vanguard leading the revolution was irrelevant in practice, and still believe in it as a principle for the indefinite, bright, future.

At the time, Ernie Erber proposed that we identify ourselves as a “small mass party,” which would have implied some leading coordinated participation in the social battles of the day. No one took that seriously. It seemed unrealistic. By that time our youth was vanishing. No more professional revolutionaries. Most WPers became parents with children to support. They went back to school, got their degrees, became professionals and academics. Some shifted to careers as union leaders. (My own main interest turned toward union democracy) Actually, our time as a distinctive tendency was up.

Looking back, it is obvious to me that those who stayed with Cannon in the SWP felt more secure with a strict adherence with the accepted canon, and felt nervous over any heretical deviation.

Those who went with Shachtman into the WP were more open to new ideas. (Only relatively more open. We retained our own ideological limits on what we felt were basics.) We were younger. More of us were students and semi-skilled would-be intellectuals.

In the new WP, our line for members during the war was “into the factories and unions” where we became active in the campaign against the wartime no-strike pledge. More of the SWPers were already in unions. The SWP original guidance for members was to lie low and “preserve the cadres,” presumably to make sure they were still around when that great day dawned after the war. We ridiculed that line, as did Trotsky shortly before he was murdered.

For a few short years in the mid-50s, there was a spasm of renewed hope with the Khrushchev Revelations, the revulsion against the invasion of Hungary, the beginning of the disintegration of the CP and the rise of the John Gates group in the CP. With the CP out of the way, its members presumably adrift, there was widespread discussion over the possibility of a new socialist realignment, discussions which involved AJ Muste, Gates, Shachtman/WP, and (I think) the Cochranites (by then out of the SWP.) [The “Cochranites” were a faction around Bert Cochran who had supported Michel Pablo in his dispute with James Cannon in the early 1950s. They were expelled from the SWP in 1954.]

For most of us in the WP, the Socialist Party seemed as the natural arena for drawing all these various tendencies together to build a broad, multi-tendency, influential, renewed socialist party modelled on the pre-First World War party of Debs. And so, the ISL dissolved to allow its members to join the SP and take part in the anticipated realignment. (For a short time after ISLers joined the SP, I was a member of its national committee. Among those who rejected the move was Hal Draper. He and a few supporters joined together in the International Socialists to remain true to their original revolutionary principles.)

Hopes for rejuvenation through the SP proved illusory. Disillusioned CPers never turned toward the SP; they mostly dropped out of organised politics or filtered into one or another limited social movement. The SP split. Mike Harrington led a left-wing minority out of the party, later to form the Democratic Socialists of America. The right-wing majority changed its name to Social Democrats, and finally disappeared. With the name orphaned and available for adoption, a tiny group of well-meaning but ineffectual former members picked it up. All those discussions and manoeuvrings over a new beginning for a broad socialist movement dribbled away.

Finally, Max Shachtman found his own abortive “solution” to the issues posed at the war’s end.

Some ask whether Shachtman’s degeneration was the inevitable end-point of the politics he began developing in the 1930s. The very question recalls the mood in the Cannonite SWP at the time: depart from the bible, and you go down the slippery slope to hell. Shachtman’s distinctive “politics” of the late 1930s condemned Soviet Union’s role in the war and questioned its character as a “workers’ state”. Shachtman’s views were shared by others: Hal Draper, Joe Carter, Irving Howe, Manny Garrett (Geltman), Stanley Plastrick (Judd), Julie Jacobson, and others (including, later, Mike Harrington) who all broke with Shachtman and “inevitably” went their own individual, disparate ways.

Actually, the idea that Russia was a new bureaucratic collectivist society was first advanced by Carter and Garrett, in opposition to Shachtman, who came around later.

Shachtman shifted course and developed the politics rejected by the left only after the end of World War Two and the failure of socialist revolution to develop. His left-wing critics have measured the late Shachtman against the accepted orthodoxy (which was his orthodoxy) of yesterday without ever subjecting their own orthodoxy to the test of world events of the last 150 years or more.

(I should say that what follows is not based upon substantive discussions with Shachtman, but on impressions I gathered during many informal personal meetings with him.)

To the very end, Shachtman considered himself a Marxist and never abandoned the Marxian conception of the proletariat as the key force for social change. But he considered himself a “realist.” The failure of socialist revolution and the challenge from totalitarianism convinced him that the proletarian force was to be found not in the world of imagination, but in powerful, tangible, institutions. The quest for a revolutionary proletarian vanguard proved to be illusory. The proletariat as a third camp clearly opposed to the others never materialised, and turned into a kind of mystical hope. And so, in what he saw as the real world, he found the proletariat existing as a real force and with real power in the existing mass labour organisations.

In practice, as he saw it, that power was wielded by the dependably stable labour bureaucracy. Even though my personal relations with Shachtman remained cordial, he was cold to my preoccupation with union democracy, which meant a defence of democratic rights of insurgents against labour leaders. He saw the proletariat, embodied in the existing workers’ organisations as a key force in resisting what he felt was the “dominant” danger of the time: Stalinist totalitarianism. No more third camp. So Shachtman evolved after the end of World War Two.

I see a policy analogous to Shachtman’s, but on the left, in those who, looking for a substitute for the proletariat, find it in “progressive” forces, like the Russian and Chinese autocrats, who oppose the “dominant” imperialism.

In the debates of 1939/40, Trotsky argued that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state, “degenerated”, but a workers’ state, as long as property was nationalised. (At one point, as I remember, he was convinced that any attempt to restore private property would be massively resisted by the Russian workers.) We replied that no property form guaranteed power to workers, who could exert their power only through democracy. This idea stayed with me and resounded through the years. I took the idea one step further. I became convinced that, as far as one could see into the future, no change in the form of property ownership will erase the conflict among contending social groups. As far as we can see, the need will continue to defend people below from the administrators, bureaucrats, and privileged strata above. From that standpoint, the test is not property forms but democracy, which provides the means of that defence.

And, in the context of this discussion, the position of those who look toward authoritarian Russia and China, and the like, as “progressive” allies in the battle for... what?... is not only wrong, it is directly counter to what I believe, and is repellent to me.

Finding my way to the third camp left

Gabe Gabrielsky was a member of the YPSL and later the IS, leaving the organisation in 1973. Since then he has been active in various trade union and political struggles, including supporting Green Party electoral campaigns. He has also been active in Occupy Wall Street.

In 1958, the third camp Independent Socialist League (ISL) dissolved, and most of its members went into the social-democratic Socialist Party.

The youth organisation of the ISL, the Young Socialist League, followed suit and its members joined the youth group of the Socialist Party, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL).

At the time, the Cuban Revolution was brand new and what it was all about was of considerable moment to college aged liberals and radicals. In 1963, when I was 20, I got into a discussion at a party with a young YPSL member about Cuba. I was so unused to thinking in terms of social movements and the idea of ordinary people being historical agents that I found his arguments all but incomprehensible. He sold me a copy of New Politics, a third camp theoretical journal, that had a symposium on Cuba — but if anything, the written arguments were even more incomprehensible to me than had been my conversation.

I spent some time trying to locate the Socialist Party, which, unbeknownst to me, in the winter of 1964, was in the midst of a faction fight. I attended a Communist Party forum, and a forum organised by the then pro-Stalinist Monthly Review. I was put off by the pro-Soviet politics and could make neither head nor tail of the sectlets leafleting outside. I also attended a forum of the orthodox Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party.

At the time I was working as a billing clerk for a major music publisher in Manhattan. I eventually found the YPSL through serendipity. The guy sitting at the desk behind me was a YPSLer, though it took several weeks of circumspect small talk to figure that out. Once I did, I was ready to join, but things were a mess in the SP and the YPSL. It was an election year and the Party divided on the question of whether to support Lyndon Johnson’s Presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater. The left wing majority of the Party was propagandistically for a labour party, though Party notables like Norman Thomas, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and Michael Harrington were busy barnstorming for Johnson.

That is the swamp I walked into. This was at the same time that these same personalities were involved in a famous conflict with SDS, then the youth wing of the social democratic League for Industrial Democracy. At the time, despite the turmoil that it was going though, YPSL was still significantly larger than SDS.

I moved into a left wing YPSL commune on the lower East Side, where I got a very intense socialist education in very short order, which included reading the first edition of Hal Draper’s classic pamphlet, The Two Souls of Socialism.

Over the summer of 1964, I got a summer job out of town and lost contact with YPSL. When I returned to Manhattan and went to Socialist Party headquarters I learned that the leadership of YPSL had been suspended and its files confiscated by the Party, presumably because the youth were too radical. Meanwhile, out in California, the Free Speech Movement was erupting on the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

Jobless, I moved back with my parents in southern New Jersey and that Christmas holiday the remnants of YPSL met in Philadelphia and organised itself into a formation called the American Socialist Organizing Committee (ASOC). I promptly lost contact with ASOC after its founding conference, but at the same time SDS was becoming more publicly visible, as was student opposition to the war in Vietnam. I was instrumental in organising an independent left student group at the Rutgers campus in Camden, New Jersey.

Several months later I ran across someone trying to place quantities of ASOC’s magazine in a leftish book store in Philadelphia, and I ended up bookending my affiliation with ASOC, attending its dissolution convention in New York that Easter weekend.

Affiliates were urged to organise local third camp socialist clubs, and in short order we had formed a loose federation with the Berkeley Independent Socialist Club, called the Independent Socialist Clubs of America (ISCA). Meanwhile, SDS was growing by leaps and bounds. Many Independent Socialist Clubs were so small that they really were not in much of a position to do much independently, and so many independent socialists became active in SDS. I helped to organise an ISC in Washington DC, and was involved in several SDS chapters in DC as well.

SDS collapsed in 1969. Most of its members were liberalish kids who were lost to politics because of the faction fight that ensued, but a handful of SDS chapters had third camp politics and significant minorities in several other SDS chapters were third campers.

These folks came together with the ISCA (I think it was in Ann Arbor, though it may have been in Madison. I can’t recall, as we had conventions in both places), and they formed the International Socialists or IS.

My own historically forgotten contribution to this was my opposition to the change of the name of the organisation from Independent Socialist to International Socialists. It is most certainly not that I was opposed to it politically, but I did think it was sectarian. It was one thing for a British group, coming out of a culture of a mass labour party, to openly characterise itself as “international”. It was quite another, I thought, for Americans just coming out of the McCarthy era, to adopt such a moniker.

At the time, as the name choosing was supposed to be fun and the last event at a long and tiring convention, Mike Parker viewed my opposition as a disruptive attempt to keep people from going home in a timely way, though it was inconsequential enough that Mike has no memory of it. I had tremendous respect for the intellectual heavies of the IS, people like Kim Moody, Mike Parker, Joel Geier, Sy Landy and Joanne Landy. They always treated me as a comrade though I never felt their intellectual equal. This never stopped me from taking exception to them when I disagreed but I was constantly getting the shit kicked out of me intellectually.

After that convention I relocated to central New Jersey where my wife was attending graduate school at Rutgers. Hard on the heels of that convention was a strike at General Motors. A strike school was being conducted at the Rutgers Labor Center, where the Shachtmanite leadership there was open to trying to create a dialogue between auto worker militants and student radicals. Out of this we recruited several young United Auto Workers (UAW) militants. We had an IS branch in central Jersey, which included several Rutgers students and young UAW militants.

I think that there was a real distinction between the ISCA and the IS which hardly ever gets mentioned. I certainly felt it at the time of the “name change”, which I always viewed as something considerably more than a mere name change.

When the ISCA was first started, the so-called “clipping book” had been out about a year, The official name of the clipping book was An Introduction to Independent Socialism and it was a collection of all the May pamphlet issues of Labor Action that had been published during the 50s. They really delineated what Independent Socialism was all about. The clipping book was a very limited edition of 300 copies, Perhaps most important was the specially written introduction in which Draper argues that Independent Socialism was an entirely new synthesis of socialist thought and ideas, something which, Draper argued, had happened very seldom in socialist history.

Nearly everyone in the ISCA was aware of the history of the ISL, the Workers’ Party and its split from the SWP. That was one change between the ISCA and the IS, as I think when the IS started we recruited a lot of ex SDSers who were not as familiar with ISL history as were the ISCAers, most of whom had come out of the YPSL and many of whom had been in the YSL, the youth group of the ISL.

There were also copies of Shachtman’s pamphlet, The Fight for Socialism, around. This had been published by the WP shortly after the war and was a good example of how the WP tried to be a small mass party. It was basically an exposition of classical Marxist and third camp ideas written at about an 8th grade level in an effort to attract blue collar workers with limited educations. At the other end of the spectrum the WP also published The Struggle for the New Course, probably Shachtman’s best written work and an historical explanation of the rise of Stalinism in Russia. We also pushed stuff from Britain such as Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia and stuff from the Libertarian Book Club, which was an anarcho-syndicalist British outfit.

I was one of the first people to “industrialise”, not out of any ideological commitment, but because I was a college drop-out who needed the best paying job he could find. The industrialisation experience was one of the things that drove me away from the IS.

I worked in an auto parts plant in New Jersey, a kind of backwater local. Every Friday I would drive into Manhattan to attend an IS meeting and their discussions of the American working class seemed like a fantasy to me having little to do with my day-to-day work experience.

That said, I tend to agree with Draper’s assessment that Independent Socialism was a new synthesis. Even in Jersey, I had discussions with other young workers who were in a variety of radical sects and our discussions seemed to bear very little relationship to what we had to do every day on the job. There was a kind of Cold War political backwardness among older workers that fortunately disappeared as my own generation came of age and began to take the reins of leadership in the labour movement.

When Draper left the IS, my political mentor and Draper’s peer Stan Weir barnstormed the country trying to keep the organisation together, though I think Draper’s predictions were essentially correct; in fairly short order, the IS became more and more sectarian to the point where only a couple of years later Stan more or less threw in the towel and gradually withdrew from activity in the organisation.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.