Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 3, 2015

Erwin Baur interview, conclusion

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

This is the final part of an interview that Nelson Blackstock and I did about fifteen years ago. Previous installments as well as interviews with Sol Dollinger and Cynthia Cochran, two other members of the Socialist Union (aka the “Cochranites”), can be seen by going to the Vimeo channel I have devoted to these comrades. In the conclusion to the Erwin Baur interview, you will learn his views on:

–A campaign for UAW workers in the auto parts industry

–Hooking up with Labor Notes and Solidarity

–The Ed Sadlowski campaign in the United Steelworkers union

–How the Teamsters for a Democratic Union responded to a government attack

–The role of “progressive” bureaucrats like Rich Trumka

–Walter Reuther’s leadership of the UAW

–CLR James

–Life inside the Detroit branch of the Socialist Workers Party

–Estar Baur joins the conversation on “the woman question”

–Whatever happened to the 150 members of the Detroit SWP?

https://vimeo.com/121160197

February 22, 2015

Erwin Baur interview, part 3

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 11:47 pm

In this segment, the following topics are covered:

–How Erwin Baur ended up as a civilian during WWII.

–Walter Reuther, Melvin Bishop, and red-baiting in the UAW.

–Cannon: the Cochranites had “capitulated” to Stalinism.

–Trotsky’s predictions versus post-WWII realities; Cannon’s clique.

–Assessing the Cochranite legacy.

February 17, 2015

Erwin Baur interview, part two

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 1:33 am

In this segment, Erwin discusses:

–How the Detroit branch of the SWP recruited over a hundred Black workers, mostly from auto.

–The fight for a cost of living clause in the UAW contracts over the objection of the CP during WWII and Walter Reuther after the war.

–Why the charge that the Cochranites represented a layer of privileged auto workers who had lost faith in the proletarian revolution was false.

February 11, 2015

Erwin Baur interview, part one

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 12:53 am

This is the third in a series of interviews Nelson Blackstock and I conducted with veterans of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union in the late 1990s. Now 95 years old, Erwin Baur is one of the few remaining revolutionaries who had first-hand experience in the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s.

In this first part of the interview, Erwin Baur talks about becoming a socialist in high school after coming into contact with a Russian immigrant who admired Leon Trotsky.

He then discusses the Little Steel Strike of 1937 and how he disagrees with Gus Hall’s assessment of its outcome.

After losing his job at Youngstown Steel and Tube as a result of his role in the strike, he moves to Salem, Ohio and gets a new job where he meets Laverne Halsey, the plant “Bolshevik” who was victimized for his role in a 1933 auto workers strike and who got firsthand experience with Stalinism in the USSR.

Finally, he discusses Bert Cochran’s entry into the trade union movement.

For more on Erwin and his wife Estar, who was also a long-time member of the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Union, I recommend Charles Williams’s “Introduction to When the UAW Was Young” that appeared in the November/December 2007 Against the Current (http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/1176).

January 26, 2015

Sol Dollinger interview — conclusion

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 10:10 pm

In the conclusion to the Sol Dollinger interview, he speaks about:

–His youth, going from an orphanage to the WPA

–Genora’s family background

–Genora’s role in the trade union movement following the Flint strike

January 17, 2015

Sol Dollinger interview, part two

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm

In this portion of the interview, Sol Dollinger talks about:

–the role of the CP in the UAW

–James P. Cannon’s attitude toward the CP

–Sol’s hospitalization following a Nazi torpedo attack on his freighter during the Murmansk Run

–Meeting Genora Johnson

Sol Dollinger interview part one

January 14, 2015

Frank Fried 1927-2015

Filed under: Cochranites,obituary — louisproyect @ 12:55 pm

(Frank was one of the last surviving Cochranites. I never interviewed him but had a couple of phone conversations with him over the years. There will be an article commemorating his life at some point but for the time being it is worth noting that he transitioned from working in steel mills in Chicago to becoming a rock concert producer like Bill Graham. I invite you to look at his blog: http://www.showbizred.com/. On the home page it states: “My name is Frank Fried. In the middle years of the 20th century I produced concerts and tours for some of the most influential and profitable musical acts of the day, such as Pete Seeger, the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Miriam Makeba, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. What a lot of people didn’t know is that this pop music impresario had started out as a socialist revolutionary — a heritage I tried to honor throughout a tumultuous show business career. On this web site, I do my best to tell you what happened.”)


Dear Friends & Comrades,

Our dear friend and comrade, Frank Fried, passed away peacefully today, Tuesday, Jan. 13. His loving wife of 27 years, Alice, is planning a memorial and you will all be notified.

It was only a few days ago that four close friends, Seymour Kramer, Jack Gerson, Robin David and myself were at Frank’s bedside talking politics for several hours. Frank was unable to speak but he was able to muster enough energy to give us the middle finger and the raised fist at separate points during our discussions. Just like old times!

Both gestures were well deserved by the way.

We all loved Frank.

In Solidarity,
Carl Finamore

UPDATE:

Family’s Obit for Frank Fried – Presente! Jan. 24 Memorial Service in Alameda, CA

Frank Fried, 1927­-2015, Presente!

Franklin Fried, who devoted more than 70 years to supporting and fighting for freedom, justice, equality, and liberation for working and oppressed people in the U.S. and around the world, died Tuesday, Jan. 13, at his home in Alameda, California. He was 87.

Frank Fried was the principal presenter of folk and popular music in Chicago for a quarter of a century, but he always thought of himself, first and foremost, as a revolutionary socialist. In his own view, his signal achievement was a historic 1968 series of benefit concerts for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he organized at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He also produced the Beatles’ 1964 and 1965 Chicago appearances, along with innumerable concerts by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Miriam Makeba, Pete Seeger, Frank Zappa, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and many other artists.

Frank was a radical, a socialist, and a labor and civil rights activist throughout his life, and he took great pride in never having abandoned his principles of fair play throughout his storied show business career. “After shaking hands with some managers and promoters in the business, you would have to check if you still had all your fingers,” he would half jest. The colorful story of how he tried to be different, with mixed success, is recounted on his website, showbizred.com.

Frank was born in 1927 on Chicago’s north side. His father, a lawyer in private practice, died when Fried was a child. His mother, who worked as a secretary for the Illinois State Athletic Commission, felt compelled to send Fried to a military school for proper discipline. After military school, he attended the University of Chicago. He dropped out after two years to serve in the United States Navy at the end of World War II.

After the war, Fried joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) as a teenager and worked as a welder in Chicago’s booming U.S. Steel South Works plant. He was attracted to the SWP’s democratic vision of world socialism. In 1947, he and his Chicago comrades helped lead a broad and successful defense campaign for James Hickman, who was up on murder charges. Hickman, an African­American sharecropper who had recently moved his family to Chicago from the South, was accused of shooting the landlord who had burned his family out of their apartment, killing three of Hickman’s children. With help from SWP organizers, community pressure got the charges reduced and Hickman released. The dramatic story is recounted in a recent book from Haymarket Press, People Wasn’t Made to Burn, which is dedicated to Frank.

Frank called the campaign “perhaps the party’s finest hour” and credited that organizing experience for much of his later success in building broad coalitions for social justice. Frank had a remarkable ability to collaborate with folks from across the left spectrum, and to help others reach out and build in ways they would not have done without his help and counsel.

A few years later, Frank was expelled from the SWP along with prominent dissident Bert Cochran and many of the party’s foremost intellectuals and labor activists. In 1954 Fried helped that group launch the American Socialist, a magazine that aimed to free the idea of socialism from its association in the American mind with Stalinist dictatorship, and he traveled the country promoting it.

The magazine folded in 1959, a victim of the poisonous cold war atmosphere, Frank said later. “The trajectory that we expected of hooking up with militant sections of the labor movement and a new beginning of the radical movement never happened,” he explained. “The group did not leave much of a footprint, but individuals played an important role in the labor and civil rights movement, and the attractive style and open tone of the magazine did leave an imprint on the New Left that came after us,” he added.

For Frank, the value of the American Socialist group lay in reaching out and attempting to regroup with other socialists without rejecting its Trotskyist background. “We attempted to bring our heritage to the problems and radical language and organization of the modern world without ever forgetting the legacy of Leon Trotsky, who had an incredible impact on me as he stood up for workers democracy against the tides of history,” he said.

Frank stumbled into show business when he met the Austrian folk singer Martha Schlamme at the Gate of Horn, an early folk music venue in Chicago, in 1958. In need of a job and intrigued by the power of folk songs to move people emotionally and politically, Frank went to work as an assistant to Albert Grossman, the club’s owner. On a trip to San Francisco the following year on Grossman’s behalf, Frank met the Gateway Singers, a racially integrated folk­singing group, and managed the group through their period of greatest commercial success. He had a knack for managing, and by the end of the 1950s he was also handling the Chad Mitchell Trio and numerous other prominent folk and popular music performers.

Frank opened Triangle Productions in 1959, with fellow socialist Fred Fine, in order to raise money for leftist projects through benefit concerts. When folk music became a pop craze during the Kennedy administration, the business took off. This was a major turn away from the repression of the 1950s, both culturally and politically. Many of the folk artists were unabashedly radical, and some, like Pete Seeger, were still blacklisted. Frank took special pride in being one of the first commercial promoters to book Seeger, whose sold­out concerts on Frank Fried’s stage in 1957 marked a defeat for the McCarthyite blacklist.

When Bob Dylan’s turn from folk toward rock resulted in an explosion of psychedelic, blues­ and country­inflected music, Frank recognized that the new groups would seize the spotlight from both acoustic folk groups and more traditional, pasteurized pop. He moved quickly on his hunch. By the early 1960s,

Triangle shows dominated live entertainment programming in Chicago and the surrounding area. Triangle Productions ran tours and concerts for the Rolling Stones, the Mothers of Invention, and many other major acts of the time. Meanwhile Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis, and Barbra Streisand remained regulars on his stages.

Throughout his career, Frank tried to weave themes of social justice into his cultural promotions, paying special attention to Miriam Makeba and other politically engaged artists. In 1963 Frank served as producer for “We Shall Overcome,” the only commercial recording by the SNCC Freedom Singers, on Mercury Records and he also took an active role in the movement against the Vietnam War as a leader of Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace.

In 1977 he returned to his roots in the steel industry as a key backer of Ed Sadlowski’s insurgent “Steelworkers Fight­Back” campaign. Frank traveled the country with Sadlowski, working plant gates and union halls in an attempt to divert the Steelworkers Union from what Sadlowski had dubbed “tuxedo unionism” and toward a militant working­class perspective. He and Sadlowski became lifelong friends.

Frank sold his production company in the early 1980s and moved to Los Angeles with his wife Françoise, hoping the weather might help ease her congenital degenerative disease. After Françoise’s death in 1985, Frank moved to New Orleans as the CEO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. He remarried there in 1988 and moved to the hills above Oakland, California with his second wife, the mystery writer Alice Wilson­ Fried, and their daughter Teasha.

Frank’s friendship with Miriam Makeba inspired him to active solidarity with the fight against Apartheid in South Africa. After Apartheid, he was a stalwart supporter of the struggle to build a Socialist alternative as the only way to guarantee the promise of Liberation. He helped launch Amandla!, a popular radical opinion magazine associated with the Democratic Left Front, and remained a valued advisor to its editors.

Frank met the writer Daniel Singer when they fought together to defend Solidarnosc against the Polish and Soviet Stalinist parties and in the 1990s, Frank led the launch of the Daniel Singer Prize, an annual essay competition for young people on topics related to socialism.

In 2011 Frank plunged into supporting the renovation of the Trotsky Museum in Mexico City, organizing a U.S. tour by Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson. He also recently joined the Solidarity chapter in the San Francisco Bay Area as a means of being connected to the movement he invested so much of his hopes in. His longtime comrade Carl Finamore reported that even when Frank was too frail to speak, “he was still able to muster enough energy to give us the middle finger and the raised fist at separate points during our discussions.”

Preceded in death by his first wife, Francoise Nicolas, and his elder sister, Vivian Medak, Frank is survived by his wife Alice, his children Pascale, Isabelle, Bruno, Troy, and Teasha, and many grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Frank’s memorial celebration will be held January 24, 1­4 p.m. at the Grand View Pavilion, 300 Island Drive, Alameda, California. In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family requests that donations in Frank’s memory be sent to Amandla! Magazine (in care of editor Brian Ashley, brian@amandla.org.za) or to the Center for Constitutional Rights (http://goo.gl/H4Cmcr).

January 4, 2015

Sol Dollinger interview

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 8:50 pm

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.

http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol8/no2/proyect.html

  Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2

Obituary

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.

Lou Proyect


Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011

August 17, 2014

The Cochranite Interviews: Cynthia Cochran

Filed under: Cochranites,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm

In the late 1990s Nelson Blackstock, a former member of the Socialist Workers Party and author of “Cointelpro”, began interviewing members of the party who had been active in the 40s and 50s as part of an oral history project, the final shape of which was to be determined.

Not long after he began the project, he drafted me to make contact with some of the Cochranites I had met through Sol Dollinger, a Marxmail subscriber who died in 2001. The purpose of the interviews with these comrades was not so much to rehash the 1953 split but to get an idea of how they got involved with the party and what their experiences in a radical labor movement were like. We managed to set up interviews with Sol, Cynthia Cochran who died in 2006, and with Irwin Baur who is still alive and in his 90s.

In this first interview we speak with Cynthia Cochran who was married to Bert Cochran, the co-leader with Harry Braverman of the American Union that put out the American Socialist magazine from 1954 to 1959, when the group disbanded. Bert co-edited the magazine with Braverman, who went on to work for Grove Press and then finally with Monthly Review.

I became very close with Cynthia in the course of visits to her apartment on West 94th Street to pick up copies of the American Socialist that I began scanning for upload to the Marxist Internet Archives. The good news is that MIA has now made the entire American Socialist available to a new generation that will find the articles of great interest, both as reflections of thinking on the left in that period and as one of the first attempts to regroup the left on a non-sectarian basis.

As you will see from the interview, Cynthia was an outspoken and altogether charming woman who was a real member of the “greatest generation”, the men and women who stood up to American capitalism when its interests were being guarded by arguably the only liberal president of the 20th century.

I would refer you to what I wrote about Cynthia on the occasion of her memorial meeting in 2006, including these words:

Cynthia belonged to a generation that is now dying out, namely people in their 80s and older who had direct experience in a radicalized workers movement. Eventually I videotaped an interview with her in which she recounted her time in aircraft plants during WWII. Like Sol’s wife Genora, she was like Rosie the Riveter but with Marxist politics.

In the official version put forward by SWP party historians, the Cochranites turned tail in the 1950s and hid under their beds. When they came out, they all became solid middle-class citizens putting their radical past behind them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

During an entire lifetime, Cynthia was politically engaged until macular degeneration began to prevent her from getting around as freely as she would have liked. As a professional nurse, she felt an immediate connection with the ACT-UP activists and took part in militant demonstrations well into her late 1960s. She also took part in antiwar demonstrations until the last minute. Indeed, her latest trip took her to some of the more interesting places in the world politically. She started off in China and then to Vietnam. From Vietnam she sailed to South Africa. Speaking as somebody who is plagued by jet lag for at least 10 days after arriving in Turkey, I am in awe of any 82 year old that can get around like that, with a compromised circulatory system and 75 percent blindness to boot.

The subject of the next video in this series will be Sol Dollinger.

July 18, 2014

Introducing the American Socialist

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 5:11 pm

Premier issue of the American Socialist, January 1954

 

Yesterday I got some great news from David Walters of the Marxism Internet Archives:

Louis,

as promised, the entire run of The American Socialist has finally be digitized into high quality PDFs. I integrated the HTML you had done previously into the table of contents. Let everyone who needs to know, know. I’ll announce on Facebook and the MIA’s What’s New page tonight or tomorrow.

http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/amersocialist/american_socialist.htm

Comradely,

David

Some background is in order.

A year or two after Marxmail was launched back in 1998, I noticed that someone named Sol Dollinger had subscribed. That name rang a bell. I wrote Sol asking if he was related to Genora Dollinger, who as Genora Johnson led the Woman’s Auxiliary of the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937. She was indeed, he replied. He was married to her until her death at the age of 82, just 3 years before Sol subbed to Marxmail.

I knew of the Dollingers through my education in the SWP, the group they split from in November 1953 as part of the “Cochranites”. Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman had become convinced that another kind of left was needed, one that dispensed with the “Leninism” that made broad unity on the American left impossible. Upon leaving (or being expelled—take your pick), they launched a group called the Socialist Union and a magazine called the American Socialist that lasted until 1959 when it became obvious that conditions were not favorable for starting a new group.

The SWP leaders characterized the Cochranites, most of whom were autoworkers like Sol Dollinger, as a relatively privileged layer that had succumbed to the pressures of the Cold War.

In the 1971 convention of the SWP, the majority faced a challenge by the For a Proletarian Orientation tendency that proposed sending comrades into industry. Ironically, their proposal was far less extreme than the one eventually adopted by the majority when it launched its “turn to industry” 7 years later.

The Boston branch of the SWP was a stronghold of FAPO, in large part a function of Larry Trainor’s influence over many younger members recruited there. Larry, a hard-core “Cannonite”, was not comfortable with “petty bourgeois” youth and longed for a return to the party’s trade union orientation.

I had come up to Boston to work with Peter Camejo against the FAPO tendency. He asked me to prepare some remarks on the Cochranites to use against FAPO. We wanted to show that being in industry was no guarantee that you wouldn’t become corrupted by petty bourgeois influences—just look at what happened to the privileged auto workers around Bert Cochran.

Not too long ago, I learned from David Walters that the documents from the 1971 convention had become available, including my remarks on the Cochranites that I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. I got a particular chuckle out of this paragraph (Bartell was Mike Bartell, whose real name was Milt Zaslow and who would be a stalwart of the Los Angeles left until his death in 2008):

Bartell and Cochran had one thing in common. They were opposed to continuing as a Trotskyist party. They were liquidationists and 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.

A decade after I wrote this, Peter Camejo had informed me that we had to “drop the Leninism stuff”. But as opposed to my polemics about the Cochranites no longer believing in a revolutionary party, Peter had come to the conclusion that self-declared vanguards were an obstacle to the creation of a genuine revolutionary party.

I am not even sure whether Peter ever saw himself as a disciple of the Cochranites. In his memoir, he recounts going to a Socialist Union meeting in New York when he was 13 years old or so and newly converted to the socialist cause. I had the impression that he regarded them as a quaint formation and nothing much else.

It is true that Bert and Harry were definitely not interested in selling the Militant. But they were not retreating from politics and into a private life—the SWP version of things. They did yeoman work in creating a pole of attraction for socialists in the 1950s looking for a way to challenge the Cold War political climate and lay the groundwork for new advances. In many ways, they were on the same wavelength as people in Britain who became key figures in the creation of a New Left.

In an article titled “New Horizons for European Socialism”, Bert Cochran referred to developments in Britain:

WHAT has come out of the year’s churning? In terms of organization and social influence, very little. In terms of intellectual quickening, something of importance. As explained by our British correspondent in the October American Socialist, an immediate outgrowth of the mass exodus out of the Communist Party was the so-called forum movement, and the periodical, the New Reasoner, an offspring of the Reasoner, which was the opposition journal inside the CP.

The socialist forums held a two-day conference in April of this year at Sheffield attended largely by recent CP members to try to figure out what had brought on the catastrophe and how to go about reconstructing a philosophy for the movement. As was only natural after a sudden release from an intellectual prison-house, the gathering brought forth a remarkable babel of music in which every possible instrument of the orchestra was represented. Some thought Marxism remained unimpaired. Others believed Marxism had proved ‘a defective tool.’ One delegate wondered whether there weren’t after all absolute humanitarian values. Another held out for proletarian values. Some wanted to go ahead and build a new Marxist party. Others thought the forums should not try to become a new center of political power but stimulate a new climate of socialist opinion.

Wikipedia has this to say about the New Reasoner:

The New Reasoner was preceded by a journal entitled The Reasoner, first published in July 1956 by John Saville and E.P. Thompson. The editors proposed the use of the journal as a forum for the discussion of “questions of fundamental principle, aim, and strategy,” critiquing Stalinism as well as the dogmatic politics of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

In 1957, following their resignation from the CPGB over its support of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, Thompson and Saville began the publication of a new journal, named the New Reasoner, with the purpose of contributing to “the re-discovery of our traditions, the affirmation of socialist values, and the undogmatic perception of social reality.” The opening editorial was a reaffirmation of their commitment to the British Marxist and Communist tradition, despite their departure from the Party. They allied themselves with European workers who were fighting for “de-stalinisation” and called for the rebirth of principles within the movement.

In 1960 the New Reasoner merged with the Universities and Left Review journal to become New Left Review.

Among the authors who contributed to American Socialist you will find Isaac Deutscher, WEB DuBois, Paul Sweezy, William Appleman Williams, Paul Mattick, and Leo Huberman. The magazine was not only a resource for activists trying to build a new socialist left in the USA; it was also an invaluable reservoir of analysis of major trends in American society in the 1950s from automation to the Civil Rights movement. For college students looking for a valuable source of primary information on the period, there’s no better place to go than the American Socialist.

In terms of its disappearance after 7 years, I have heard some “Leninists” refer to the entire project as vindicating the James P. Cannon approach to politics, or what I have referred to as Zinovievism on many occasions. I don’t regard the dissolution of the magazine and the group around Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman as anything more than a sensible reaction to objective conditions.

But over the past 10 years or so, the conditions for a relaunch of the American Socialist have ripened. The SWP is smoldering wreckage now and groups following the “Leninist” model are crisis-ridden. When I speak of a relaunch, I do not mean trying what was done with a new SDS a few years ago. Instead, I speak of new efforts across the board to transcend the dogmatism and the sectarianism that have hobbled the Marxist left for so many decades. Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman did believe in a Leninist party but one that would come into existence in the same way as the original, through the consolidation of an organization that arises through the mass movement. This is how Bert put it in 1954. It rings as true today as it did back then:

Our purpose is to bring our ideas into the mass movement, and to gradually raise the consciousness of the ranks to the historic tasks. But the last thing in the world we should attempt is to inculcate the ranks with the necessity of adopting our specific tradition, and impressing upon them the truth of all the evaluations and proposals broached by Trotsky from 1923 on. The thought that in the coming period of our activity we have to go out of our way to mention the name and work of Leon Trotsky, and the name and the existence of the Fourth International, shows how far all of us have become infused with narrow group thinking, and organizational fetishism, how far we have traveled from the outlook of Frederick Engels, who warned the Socialists in America not to publish the Communist Manifesto, as it was based on old-world experiences, and that the American labor movement, developing under different conditions, would not understand it, and would not know what Marx and Engels were talking about. Why isn’t it possible for us to take this simple thought of Engels and apply it to ourselves and our work? If Engels didn’t think this was putting a question mark over his revolutionary integrity, why should we?

We said before that only by integrating ourselves within the existing movements could our cadres survive and fulfill their mission. We will now add to that proposition this corollary: Only by dropping all sectarian notions of imposing our specific tradition upon the mass movements which developed in different circumstances and under different influences, can our approach register successes and guarantee the future of our precious cadres. What is involved, it is dear, is not any modification of programmatic essence, but a sharp reversal of organizational concepts and perspectives on the nature of the development of the mass revolutionary parties of tomorrow.

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 role 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.

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