My adventures among the Third Camp

Submitted by AWL on 26 July, 2012 - 10:00

In Solidarity 242, 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). The ongoing symposium can be read here. This week, we publish a contribution from Michael Hirsch. Michael joined the International Socialists (US) in 1972 and was a member until 1986.

He served as branch organiser for the group in Boston before moving to the Midwest to join comrades in the steel industry. He has worked as a New York City-based labor journalist and political writer since 1985, and is an editorial board member of the US socialist journals New Politics and Democratic Left.

Daniel Randall

Socialism from below was the image that stoked my fired imagination. Third Camp socialism… not so much. As a militant with the International Socialists during the 1970s and well into the 1980s, I often felt like the atheist in the church choir. The singing was glorious; it was the sanctified liturgy and the smug churchmen I couldn’t abide.

Not that I had any distaste for Third Camp formulations in principle; Hal Draper’s The Two Souls of Socialism clinched it for me. It still does. So did making the acquaintance of Julie Jacobson, the quondam editor of Max Shachtman’s New International and, with Draper, among the few comrades who didn’t fold into the arms of the State Department when the US government went homicidal in Vietnam. Problem was, our ideology never transcended the parlor. Or the coffee house. Or the classroom. Or the discussion circle. Propaganda efforts aside, it never much affected our practice.

That was the pity. New Politics, founded in 1962, was a refreshing alternative to the whiney agony-aunting of Dissent magazine. Then there was Benny the Ape, another ex-Shachtmanite companion of the road. If Benny, a genuinely disarming if peculiar Damon Runyon-type character, had another name, I never knew it. After he told me what I already knew about Stalinism (as a precocious 19 year-old when we met in 1965, I had of course read Deutscher and a little Trotsky, which if anything rid me of any “East is Red” sympathies), I asked him if he was still in Shachtman’s camp. We young radicals all knew about Mad Max. We were SDS activists who were summarily dismissed as its youth affiliates that same year by the League for Industrial Democracy, then a wholly owned Shachtman subsidiary. Benny called Shachtman a bombardier; that was good enough for me.

Problem was, Third Camp socialism as politics was abstracted from any praxis. It was a revolutionary philosophy that never cohered as a revolutionary practice. Like Trotskyism, at least as it operated on this side of the pond, it seemed to carry its émigré status with it.

The vanguardism to which we increasingly gave allegiance never described an actual sociological relationship with working people so much as a set of prophetic ideas. One refugee from the SWP USA told me in 1972, when I was at the ripening age of 26, that if the vanguard were down to a lone individual in the desert, there would still be a vanguard. Mercifully I never met a Third Camper with that inflated sense of self, but the émigré status was always there. Even when we considered ourselves activists, even industrialising in the early 1970s, our trade union work was no more or less democratic than that of any other left groups — at least those that considered themselves anticapitalist.

Nor in truth were we better at bringing our democratic values home. In a period of five years, the IS suffered three major splits that I can remember. One, in 1977, was even orchestrated in part by our ostensible co-thinkers in the British SWP, with Cliff sending in stealth comrades to stir the pot. Up to that time I considered myself a Cliffite; this move by him was the shock of the new. It was also sadly unnecessary. If the Stalinist state, after war, the collapse of the revolutionary tide in Europe and the rise of a self-interested bureaucratic caste in Russia represented at least a problem for Leninists, what could I make of Cliff’s martinet-like intervention when the stakes were minute.

Looking back at some of the screeds I wrote in those days - I’m just now packing and shredding in preparation for house repairs - I can’t say I was much better at unifying theory and practice.

We all took Marx’s injunction to represent the movement of the future in the present as writ, so that any wildcat strike was an implicit critique of class rule and every call for parity by minority workers an inherent and destabilising class demand.
I suppose that’s better than not seeing the future in the present, denying there is a historic mole busily burrowing underground, believing that reforms are inherently progressive and necessarily incremental, or being blind to disruptions having any larger meaning. We certainly knew better than to collapse history into an eternal post-industrial present.

But the sheer triumphalism of the writing suggests a millenarian mindset that had more to do with wishing that knowing, or hoping than investigating. Marxism may not be a science, but it’s not a prayer wheel, either. And Third Camp socialism, as I experienced it, was very much a creed. And in itself no salvation.

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