Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 11, 2015

I was wrong on the Cochranites in 1971–dead wrong

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

In my article on “Why does the left suck so badly”, I referred to the Cochranites—a group organized as the Socialist Union that published a magazine from 1954 to 1959 called the American Socialist. The two main leaders were Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, who had left the Trotskyist movement in order to build a new non-sectarian organization that in many ways anticipated the development of groups like Solidarity in the USA or European parties such as Podemos or Syriza.

I became convinced that such an approach was necessary after reading Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” in the early 1980s and worked with him to build a new non-sectarian movement through the auspices of the North Star Network. Like the Socialist Union, the North Star Network was short-lived but the ideas it stood for lived on.

Justin Raimondo of antiwar.com posed a question to me after my article appeared:

I was very interested to read your contribution to an ancient issue of the SWP’s internal discussion bulletin a polemic aimed at the Cochranites: I’d provide the link but I’d have to wade through a ton of material and I just wanted to let you know it’s online. It would be equally interesting to read a commentary by you on your old self, as revealed in that yellowing document. (The SWP’s internal discussion bulletins are posted on the same site as the speech you link to in this post).

As it turns out, Justin was referring to my article that was a contribution to the 1971 preconvention discussion in the Socialist Workers Party. The irony is that both Peter and I considered the Cochranites to be rightwing renegades from Trotskyism at the time, even though we would later adopt positions 180 degrees in the other direction. To my knowledge Peter never wrote anything about the Cochranites (he was much more of a speaker and an organizer than a writer) but I am quite sure he would have agreed with me. Peter did mention the Cochranites in his memoir but there is little evidence that he understood their importance:

At fourteen I told my mom I was now a socialist. She told me to go out and play. I asked permission to go from our home in Great Neck on Long Island to New York City to attend a meeting of the Socialist Union. To my amazement, as I look back, my mother said it was okay but that I had to be back by 10:00 p.m. I traveled alone on the Long Island Rail Road to my first meeting. I’d imagined that it would be in a huge hall with thousands of workers with red banners or something along those lines. As it turned out I was the first person to show up, so I sat and waited. Only about fifteen people came. I later learned that the Socialist Union, led by Bert Cochran, had broken off from the Socialist Workers Party in 1953. They were very nice to me. I couldn’t understand anything they were talking about but I could tell they supported the poor and were in favor of equality. The small size of the meeting didn’t turn me off. On the contrary, I thought, I need to find a way to help because the socialists are so outnumbered.

My own conversion to what amounted to neo-Cochranism took place shortly after I launched the Marxism list in 1998 when I noticed that someone named Sol Dollinger had become a subscriber. I sent him a note asking if he was related to Genora Dollinger, who was best known as Genora Johnson, the leader of the Women’s Auxiliary to the UAW in Flint, Michigan. It turns out that Genora was his late wife and that both of them were members of the Socialist Union. Sol put me in touch with Cynthia Cochran in New York, who was Bert’s widow. That led to my frequent visits to her apartment on the West Side to discuss the Cochranite legacy and to pick up copies of the American Socialist magazine to post to the Internet.

Before I turn my attention to the piece I wrote on the Cochranites 44 years ago, it would be worth putting the 1971 convention into context. This convention was both an endorsement of the “new radicalization” analysis of the SWP and a fairly brutal attack on the Proletarian Orientation Tendency that was not happy with it. I was in the Boston branch of the SWP at the time, where Peter Camejo was assigned to do battle with the POT that constituted probably around 40 percent of the branch. They were a majority at one point but the national office had taken the bureaucratic liberty to transfer in people like me to make sure that they were stifled.

The SWP argued that the new radicalization was going to be different from that of the 1930s that was based in the unions. In a nutshell, it considered the social movements to be as important as the trade union struggle. For the POT, the main complaint was not so much orienting to the Black struggle et al but the failure of the SWP to assign any serious forces to the union movement—which was true. At the time any challenge to the party apparatus was considered disloyal and eventually all of the POT members were either expelled or left in disgust. The irony, of course, is that within a decade after this fight in the party, the SWP leadership would not only adopt the POT line but take it in the most extreme direction arguing that any new upsurge in the social movements would take place strictly through the trade unions. As an indication of how stupid this line was, the party went from nearly 2000 members in 1981 to what it is today—a hundred or so men and women in their 60s and 70s utterly disconnected not only from the mass movements but from the planet earth.

Turning to my article, I am not sure why I referred to the POT misrepresenting the Cochranites but I suspect that it might have been their members making an analogy between the “new radicalization” analysis and the approach of the Socialist Union, which was one of breaking with Trotskyist orthodoxy. Frankly, except for the brief period between 1965 and 1975 or so, the SWP never thought outside the box. It was always a party that had a deep workerist dynamic, always hoping against hope that the 1930s would return.

In any case, the purpose of my article was to prove that having a working class composition was no guarantee that you would remain revolutionary. I wrote:

The Cochranites in Detroit were primarily industrial workers, especially auto workers with deep roots in the trade unions. Many of them had been leaders in previous union struggles. Also in the Cochranite faction were some supporters in New York who had more of a middle class type background and composition.

Within the Cochran faction there were two groupings. One was led by Mike Bartell in New York. Bartell, the least important leader of the Cochran group, was adapting to Stalinism. After the victory of the Chinese CP and the Yugoslav CP and the growing fear of a third world war because of the cold war some Trotskyists thought Stalinism would be forced to play a revolutionary role or was already playing a progressive role. Bartell wanted to concentrate on maneuvering within the CP periphery. Cochran’s base was in industrial cities like Detroit. Cochran reflected an adaptation to the trade union bureaucracy. He was primarily interested in maneuvering within the trade union bureaucracy.

Bartell and Cochran had one thing in common. They were opposed to continuing as a Trotskyist party. They were opposed to Leninism. They were liquidationists who no longer believed the revolution needed a party. Both wings of the Cochranites were hostile to doing political party building work such as holding forums, running election campaigns, selling The Militant. The basic question of the 1953 split with Cochran was over whether we need or do not need a Leninist party.

Of course the Cochranites were right. We do not need a “Leninist party”, at least understood in terms of what James P. Cannon stood for. The whole purpose of the Socialist Union was to serve as a catalyst for regroupment rather than to position itself as the nucleus of a Leninist party. Indeed, one of the major activities of the Socialist Union was to organize forums to address this need. For example, in 1956 the Socialist Union organized a regroupment forum in Chicago that drew 800 people. Among the featured speakers were Sidney Lens and A.J. Muste who would become key leaders of the antiwar movement about ten years later. Cochran’s speech to that gathering is on the American Socialist archives. His words seem as pertinent as ever:

What we have to ask ourselves, I think, is this: Is it possible now in the light of the dolorous experience of American radicalism, and the greater knowledge we possess today of the Russian experiment, is it possible to look at Russia from higher vantage ground, and from the viewpoint of our own American needs even if we have some differences in our precise appreciations? Can the Left free itself from unthinking idolatry and the whitewashing of Russian crimes against socialism; and, on the other extreme, from the embittered hostility which misses the epic movement of historic progress, and can see in the Soviet bloc only the anti-Christ of our time.

IN other words, I am making a plea for sanity, for more mature judgement, for deeper historical insight, for an end to Left bigotry and Babbittry, for a cease-fire in our own cold war, for an effort at cooperation, and where possible, reconciliation.

If we do not regroup our effectives, if we cannot integrate our work, then it may be that the present radical movement in this country, from one end of the spectrum to the other, will go under in the flood, and a new generation will have to build a socialist organization from the ground up.

If we can find the inner resources to unravel this knotty riddle of our lifetime, then we have the chance to reconstruct the movement on sturdier foundations and along more mature lines, and the challenge of democratic socialism, compelling and clear, can again be flung into the market place—where it has unnecessarily been absent far too long.


  1. Good article.

    The Cochranites were in a tough position. Back in the 1953-1965 period, there was a lot of public hostility to the Socialist Left due to the Cold War. Recruitment was pretty low. The Cochranite Socialist Union seemed to disintegrate around 1958-1961 IIRC. Had they stayed on until the 1970 period, they could have collected a lot of the upswing that instead got channeled into the SWP, which as you said had a bureaucracy and somewhat sectarian orientation. But there is also the age factor, unfortunately. The Cochranites were in their prime in the 1930’s and 1940’s. So to talk about them collectively generating a massive regroup in the 1970s would have been harder. And another problem was that the Cochranites’ milieu was the labor left. But the 1970’s were really a youth movement that was focused on antiwar activism and often colleges, and that makes things harder when you factor in the Cochranites’ age at that point. It wouldn’t have been impossible of course. It would just require a major adaptation to a different social group and conditions.

    And of course, since the youth antiwar movement was practically forced into being because of Vietnam and the draft, after a few years of the war’s end, that natural energy would start to dissipate, making it hard for really any organization, sectarian or not to keep the social flow going. That is not to say I believe in a total Determinism, it’s just important to look at the factors behind generating the Left’s upswing in 1970 and to see what their natural situation would have been ten years later.

    Comment by Raccko (@racckoff) — August 11, 2015 @ 5:52 pm

  2. I joined the NYC branch in February 1953, so I was in the middle of the Cochran fight. I joined neither faction. (I was the only independent in the branch at the time.) I agreed with Bartell, etc. that a tactical approach to the ALP was valid as the CP was liquidating the ALP, which had been their front organization. Many of their former supporters were opposed. However, it was clear that the two tendencies in the Cochranite faction no longer had a perspective of building a Party. The Pabloites at that time thought a Third World War was coming which would force the CPs to take power. And the union people around Cochran found some themselves thrown out of unions during the McCarthy witch hunt, so they saw the need to hunker down. I felt at the time (I still do) there were places we could have intervened, in spite of FBI survelllience. The Afro-American community was more open to socialists then later. College campuses were discussing C Wright Mills. The SWP was on the ballot in many cities and states and we had TV time until the liberals changed the law to exclude radicals. I decided to remain in the SWP, despite having attended the founding meeting of the American Socialist.

    Comment by Earl Gilman — August 12, 2015 @ 1:05 am

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