This is the second in a series of interviews with members of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union in the 1950s, a forerunner of various attempts to break with sectarianism today. It started with an interview of Cynthia Cochran, Bert’s widow and a good friend until her death in 2006.
I am following up with an interview that Nelson Blackstock and I conducted with Sol Dollinger around the same time we interviewed Cynthia. I made contact with other “Cochranites” through Sol who showed up on the Marxism list in the early 2000s. I am posting part one of the interview today and will be following up over the next few days.
Part one is basically Sol reminiscing about he people he knew in the UAW in the 1940s, including Homer Martin, George Addes, R.J. Thomas, Bob Travis, Kermit Johnson and Roy Reuther. Although Sol was in his 80s at the time, his memory remained very sharp. He was also able to get to the essence of the personalities he was describing.
To get an idea of Sol’s contributions to the left, I am including the obit I wrote for Revolutionary History not long after he died in 2001.
Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2
Sol Dollinger (1920–2001)
SOL Dollinger, who was one of the few surviving members of the ‘Cochranite’ group that split with James P. Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party in 1954, died on 12 September 2001, a day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This was perhaps an appropriate exit date for somebody whose personal life was so inextricably linked to the wars and economic crises of the twentieth century.
Sol was born on 7 October 1920 in Brooklyn, New York. After his mother was incapacitated by mental illness, his father placed the five-year-old Sol and his siblings in a Jewish orphanage. He remained there until the age of 16, when after becoming eligible for welfare he went out on his own. He received $2.35 every two weeks and money for rent. Even before he left the orphanage, he had become involved with the left. He joined the Young Peoples Socialist League when he was 15, and within a year or two was serving on the board of the Unemployed League in Brooklyn. As a high-school activist, he was chosen by classmates to speak at a rally in support of the Oxford Pledge against war. Mike Bartell, who would subsequently become another key Cochranite leader, defended Sol from the right-wing students that day.
By the time Sol was 18, he had joined the American Trotskyist movement, on whose behalf he performed ‘Jimmy Higgins’ work around the headquarters, like folding the Socialist Appeal, putting address labels on the New International, or cleaning Cannon’s office. After Sylvia Caldwell had finished typing up one of Cannon’s speeches, Sol often delivered them to his apartment, where Cannon would rehearse them in front of the awe-struck youth. Cannon liked an audience.
Sol was encouraged to ship out in the merchant marine, where the Trotskyists were organising a fraction. He found himself on the Murmansk run in 1942 as part of a group of 39 freighters en route to the Soviet Union. Of those 39, 30 were attacked and destroyed by the Germans, including Sol’s own vessel, which was torpedoed on 7 July. After abandoning ship into a lifeboat, he was rescued by the Soviets. But exposure to cold and seawater had taken its toll. He spent six months in a Red Army hospital recovering from severe frostbite.
Shortly before shipping out, Sol had begun a romance with Genora Johnson, who had recently split up with her husband Kermit. The Johnsons were Socialist Party members who had become key figures in the Flint auto sit-down strikes of 1936, and had eventually joined the Trotskyist movement during the American implementation of the ‘French Turn’.
After 4,000 National Guardsmen had been mobilised to put down the strike at General Motors, a women’s Emergency Brigade under Genora’s leadership entered the battle. Four hundred women volunteered to beef up the picket lines, and she saw to it that they were organised on a military basis. In Sol and Genora Dollinger’s Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers Union, she writes: ‘We carried clubs with handles carved to fit a woman’s grip. Whenever you saw one of those women, you knew she was ready for action at any time, morning, night, or anytime.’
By 1946, Sol had become an autoworker in Flint and a branch leader along with Genora. By all accounts, the United Auto Workers convention that year saw the first divisions that would eventually lead to the split in the Socialist Workers Party nine years later. If you read the Socialist Workers Party’s version of the fight in Cannon’s Speeches to the Party, you will encounter two major accusations: one, that the Cochranites were ‘soft’ on Stalinism; and two, that they had become corrupted and conservatised by postwar prosperity.
The first charge surfaced at the 1946 UAW convention, when party members supported fraction leader Bert Cochran’s proposal to join the R.J. Thomas-George Addes caucus in opposition to Walter Reuther, a move that infuriated Cannon. Although the SWP had supported Reuther on the basis of his leadership rôle in the militant strikes of 1945, his nomination of Melvin Bishop for Vice-President at the 1946 convention was unacceptable to Cochran, Dollinger and other militants. Melvin Bishop was not only a notorious red-baiter, but there were also strong suspicions that he was involved in the beatings of militants at the Briggs auto parts plant in 1945, where Genora worked. Masked assailants broke into the Dollingers’ apartment on 16 October that year and beat Genora brutally. She suffered a broken collarbone, a concussion and damage to facial nerves.
Motivating Bishop’s nomination, Reuther took aim at ‘outside influences’ in the union. Although this was presumably directed at the CPUSA, a Trotskyist delegate named Johnnie McGill demanded to know if this included Socialist Party activists and Trotskyists as well. Reuther said it did. From that point on, the Addes-Thomas caucus became a rallying point for the left, even though the discredited Communist Party was included. For militants like Cochran and Dollinger, the stakes were higher. They sensed that the witch-hunt would soon be in full swing, and understood that red-baiting must be repudiated.
With respect to the charge of ‘embourgeoisification’, Sol Dollinger dismissed it by simply laying out the economic facts of his own life as an autoworker following the war. After first making his acquaintance on the Internet, I recounted the charge that I first heard in a class given by SWP leaders in 1969. He replied:
Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell [the SWP’s trade union leader] that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other autoworker members of the party. We rented in Flint, and when I quit after seven years my wages were under 5,000 dollars a year. When Genora’s father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3,800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35.
The differences that first appeared in 1946 soon snowballed into other far-reaching theoretical and organisational questions that still have consequences for Marxist revolutionaries today. According to the official version of the fight, the Cochranites were simply looking for an excuse to retreat from politics. In his preface to Speeches to the Party, Al Hansen (brother of Joseph Hansen) writes:
During a visit I and Bea Hansen made to Flint, Sol and Genora [Dollinger] expressed the following views. The party should not be trying to build branches, running election campaigns, or even trying to recruit members in this period. The country was facing the triumph of fascism and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it because of the conservatism of the workers and our party’s weakness. When fascism triumphed here, all known Trotskyists would be wiped out as had happened in Nazi Germany. Therefore the best thing that we could do as revolutionists was to spend as much time as we had writing down and printing our ideas, our program, and then hide this printed matter in attics, basements, etc., for future generations to discover.
To make a pro forma gesture toward historical accuracy, Hansen is forced to admit that the Cochranites did not retreat overnight to lives of comfort and political conformity. He writes: ‘After the split the Cochranites set up their own organisation whose activity consisted almost solely of promoting the American Socialist, the magazine they founded.’
What Hansen fails to take into account was the deliberate decision by his opponents to avoid the organisational model embraced by James P. Cannon and his followers. The Cochranites had not formed the Socialist Union as another ‘Marxist-Leninist’ exercise to recruit new members one-by-one on the basis of a fully elaborated programme linked in ‘revolutionary continuity’ with Karl Marx. Instead, they saw it as a catalyst for regrouping the left around a common broad-based programme that focused on American issues, rather than establishing who was correct on the Stalin-Trotsky debate, etc. As such, they anticipated similar initiatives that would arise in the 1980s after the implosion of a number of ‘Marxist-Leninist’ formations, including the Socialist Workers Party itself. Erwin Baur, a Cochranite veteran now in his 80s, continues to work with Solidarity, which he sees as a continuation of their experiment.
It was not as if the Cochranites were tired of revolutionary politics. Rather, they were tired of dead-end sectarian models. As Bert Cochran told his comrades at a founding meeting of the Socialist Union:
We approach all these strata, however, in the spirit of Marx’s Communist Manifesto which proclaimed that the revolutionists had no interests separate and apart from the working class, that we are not a special sect, cult, or church, which seeks to draw people out of the broad currents into its backwater, but rather as American Marxists, we seek to join with others in advancing the existing struggles to a higher stage and on a broader front. We are convinced that out of these struggles and experiences, even before big mass forces take to the field, left currents will arise with which we shall be able to cooperate and fuse; that the American Marxist tendency, as a stronger formation than at present, will thus be able to discharge its rôle as a left wing in the big movement – as part and parcel of the struggle to create the mass revolutionary party in the United States. That is our perspective.
After Sol and Genora Dollinger were witch-hunted out of the auto industry, they moved to Los Angeles, where Sol started a new career as a professional fund-raiser. They both stayed active politically and jumped at the opportunity to work with the Peace and Freedom Party in the late 1960s, which had emerged from the student and anti-war movements.
While the Socialist Union was marked by a kind of easy-going tolerance, Sol himself could be fractious on occasions, particularly around questions that he felt strongly about. He was bitterly opposed to black nationalism, and appeared to retain the kind of class-over-race orientation that marked the Trotskyist movement of the 1940s. This was understandable. During the immediate post-Second World War period, the Detroit and Flint branches won many black autoworkers because of successful campaigns against segregation in the auto plants.
In the last 10 years of his life, Sol battled with prostate cancer. In a race to finish his book on the formation of the UAW, Sol was ultimately successful. Published by Monthly Review last year, it contains valuable lessons for trade union activists today. The last four chapters are an ‘oral history’ of the period by Genora Dollinger, whose contribution to the movement was acknowledged in the documentary film With Babies and Banners. Sol was immensely proud of this book and his association with the American Socialist/Socialist Union project.
After making Sol’s acquaintance on the mailing list I moderate (www. marxmail.org), I made it a point to learn as much as I could about the ‘Cochranite’ experiment, since it seemed to address questions that the left continues to face today. This led to a scanning project of selected articles from the American Socialist that will make their appearance on the Marxist Internet Archive before long (www.marxists.org). Their continuing relevance will serve as an apt tribute to the life and career of people like Sol Dollinger, Genora Dollinger, Bert Cochran, Harry Braverman and others.
Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011