Neither Washington nor Moscow: those were the days

Submitted by Matthew on 16 May, 2012 - 8:42

We continue our series of recollections and reflections from activists who were 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 people of two generations, David Finkel, who is now an editor of the Against the Current magazine in the US, and Marty Oppenheimer, who has been active in developing radical sociology.

They organised under the slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow”.

Workers’ Liberty has, over a number of decades, attempted to rediscover and re-examine the tradition of “third camp” socialism, and attempted 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

David Finkel is an editor of Against the Current magazine, published by Solidarity. This contribution represents his personal view.

I’m writing here, in my personal capacity, as a proud supporter of the third camp socialist tradition, but let me first share the results of some original research I’ve carried out to prepare this contribution: I consulted a calendar, and discovered that the current year is not 1942, or 1952 or 1962, or even 1982.

In the year 2012, we should not expect the theories, slogans and perspectives of socialists who confronted World War II, the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam or Polish Solidarnosc to deal adequately with the world twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with capitalism both triumphant and in deep global crisis.

That goes both ways, of course. If we’re going to assess the legacy of those who struggled within a labor movement and a left polarised between pro-Western and Stalinist-oriented forces, it’s important to put ourselves into their world, not to posture as if the questions of the 1950s were identical to those we face now.

Third camp socialism arose (from a split within the Trotskyist movement) as a call for an independent “camp“ of the international working class and oppressed nations, counterposed first to the imperialist camps of World War II and subsequently to the capitalist and Stalinist (“bureaucratic collectivist”) systems that divided and sought to rule the postwar world.

It is clear in retrospect — but was not at all evident at the height of the Cold War — that the struggle between the two rival social systems was a very uneven one. Despite its monstrous totalitarian power over its citizens and subjects, the bureaucratic system was a debacle in meeting the basic needs of its population — and when as in 1970s Poland it turned to western financing to meet consumer demands, its inherent economic failings rapidly brought it into terminal crisis. Even if the leading publicists and polemicists of third camp socialism, particularly Max Shachtman, may not have fully understood this imbalance, the overriding strength of the tradition lay not only in its principled rejection of capitalism or Stalinism as “lesser evil” or “progressive” relative to each other, but in its unconditional support of democratic and liberation struggles, both in their own right and as critically important pre-conditions of the struggle for a socialist future.

I joined SDS in 1965-66 at the University of Chicago, where the chapter was heavily influenced by third camp ideas.

Through this connection, I was able to escape the blandishments of Castroism and Maoism — while along with a generation of new radicals, I learned from the Vietnam war just how bloodthirsty liberal imperialists in power could be.

When SDS imploded in 1969, some of us gravitated to the newly formed International Socialists (IS). During its organisational life from 1969 until our merger in 1986 into a new organisation, Solidarity, the IS maintained the principles at the core of the “third camp” — working class loyalty, and democratic values. In particular, these principles undergirded our commitment to a rank-and-file, working-class perspective, helping give rise to some important initiatives most notably in the Teamsters’ union.

This is not to claim we were alone in building struggles within the unions — quite the contrary, numerous political tendencies threw their energies into the workers’ movement, and many did outstanding work there. What I believe we can proudly say — even though we were by no means immune to inflated ultra-left expectations of imminent “mass radicalisation,” or delusions of how large and strong our organisation would soon become — is that the IS didn’t ask our comrades in the unions to subordinate the interests of their rank-and-file organising, and their loyalty to their fellow workers, to the perceived needs of some get-rich-quick “party-building” scheme.

What’s equally important, if the IS “apparatus” had ever made such demands on our members in rank-and-file work, they would have told the leadership in no uncertain terms where to get off. As an inexperienced organisation we had plenty of mistakes, failures and missed opportunities, but we had no leadership cults or worship of some mythical socialist motherland.

Like many of our predecessors in the third camp socialist movement and the broader left, the IS suffered and declined with the defeat of a wave of working class militancy (in our case, the defeats of the later 1970s and the onset of the Reagan regime). By the mid-1980s we concluded, from our own experience and from the rapid changes in the world both positive and negative, that maintaining an organisation around our own or any other particular theory of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution was no longer fruitful or even viable.

We were not alone on the left, of course, in our rethinking. While a great portion of former “Marxist-Leninist” currents opted for variants of left reformism, the IS found itself in convergence with comrades coming from Fourth Internationalist or socialist-feminist experiences. This “regroupment” led to the formation of Solidarity in 1986.

The third camp socialist tradition, in my view, has played a critical role in maintaining a vision of socialism-from-below rooted in working class self-emancipation and the fullest extension of democracy — the same principles that guided the work of Marx, Engels and Luxemburg.

At the same time, the calendar I mentioned before tells me that the politics of socialism-from-below are no longer uniquely embedded in the classic third camp formula of “Neither Washington Nor Moscow.”

The third camp left in 1957
The following are extracts from the diary of Marty Oppenheimer, reproduced with the author’s permission.

Marty Oppenheimer joined the Young Socialist League (YSL), the informal youth group of the Independent Socialist League (ISL — formerly the Workers Party), in 1956 while at graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia).

He chaired the Philadelphia “Third Camp Contact Committee”, later the Third Camp Forum, in 1957.

Following the ISL’s entry into the Socialist Party (SP), Marty was a member of the SP’s National Committee but resigned when the SP failed to take a clear position against the Vietnam War.

He was active in the civil rights movement, and since 1970 has been involved in the development of radical sociology caucuses and the publication Critical Sociology (formerly The Insurgent Sociologist).

January 1, 1957

Just returned from N.Y. and partying including a YSL party. (I am a member now.)… We have YSL social-educationals every other week; I am Phila. Chairman of the Third Camp Contact Committee, a radical and pacifist education group; negotiations on several levels are under way for discussions with the Stalinists and their new pop front line; … [MO — I was in grad school at U of Pa at this time (sociology) and working part time for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors downtown, although I am not and was not a pacifist.]

June 20, 1957

…as for politics, we continue active but without much progress. The premature organisation by A.J. Muste of the American Forum on the one hand and Shachtman’s orientation towards the S.P. on the other serves to bisect the movement into a pro-American and a pro-Russian section, with the rest of us left still a sect.

The YSL convention which will approve Shachtman’s ideas is going to leave us third campers and the libertarians in a very weak condition. The Hungarian revolution and the Krushchev revelations have had a tremendous impact on not only the Stalinist movement but also on apathetic ex-radicals. And still the era of sects is not yet over!… Joe McCarthy has died since [last January].

September 19, 1957

I returned from my vacation after a good week at the YSL camp [in Washington, NJ, at a camp owned by and leased to us by the SWP] to find a beehive of activity in Phila: The Trotskyist youth are organizing “Young Socialist Clubs” all over the place, plus a monthly newspaper. Their Phila. version is broader, however, and for the time being more Stalinoid in coloration. We are participating, also organizing a democratic-socialist group, the “New Left Club”.

The third camp Forum (a symptomatic change) will also be busy, but I have stepped down from the chairmanship of that. Meanwhile Howard Fast and Joe Clark have resigned from the CP and their counter-numbers in England are out with a slew of new publications, including Peter Fryer’s Newsletter (expelled for writing The Hungarian Tragedy) and a New Reasoner (expelled for publishing it within the CPGB); also a British version of Dissent, Universities and Left Review.

Here too things are buzzing and we are talking to many people we didn’t realise existed a year ago. Unity with the SP-SDF is still far off…

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