Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 5, 2013

Jim Zarichny on the New Left

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,student revolt — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

The early days of SDS

For the past several months, I have been bringing down boxes and boxes of stuff from my attic and trying to organize the pamphlets, handbills, and newspapers. This is because the library of the local university has expressed a desire to get my collection and I feel they can put it to better use.

I have been looking at the contents of the large box holding my early Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) material. This past week marks the fortieth anniversary of what I consider to be the most important SDS national council meeting.

This national council meeting took place between Christmas and New Years Day in 1964. The announcement for the meeting said it would be in a union hall in midtown Manhattan. But in actual fact, most of the sessions were in the auditorium of McBurney YMCA at 23rd St, and 7th Avenue.

On the third day of the meeting, the agenda brought them to a resolution introduced by Jim Brook. Jim was very concerned about the escalation of the war in Viet Nam as a result of the (non) incident four months earlier in the Gulf of Tonkin. His resolution proposed that SDS organize a protest march in Washington at Easter, 1965. Up to this time, no one had proposed a national action. Jim’s resolution proposed that the only point of the march be opposition to the war in Viet Nam. This upset third camp people who wanted to include a denunciation of the Viet Cong, a plaque on both your houses position that was later advocated by people such as Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington.

But the main opposition to the resolution came from people who were organizing a poor people’s movement via groups such as the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). They felt that SDS had limited time and resources and what SDS had should be plowed into poor peoples organizing, which they regarded as having the highest priority. The debate became so intense that it lasted for two and a half days. The next point on the agenda was never reached. But in the end Jim’s resolution passed by a narrow margin. SDS printed posters and handbills that were widely distributed.

Among the people who supported the resolution was Steve Max. Steve was SDS national campus traveler at the time. He had helped a lot of campus chapters get organized and had a strong base of support among the campus activists. SDS had less than 4000 members nationally.

When Easter came, 32,000 people showed up for the march. This was in the era before large marches, so it drew a great deal of attention and a lot of television coverage. After the march, SDS expanded enormously. New chapters appeared everywhere. The national office was in contact with two chapters in Kansas, but a person who went to Kansas found eight chapters, six of which had never notified the national office of their existence. The Easter March made SDS a national force on campuses.

Both Jim Brook and Steve Max had come into SDS via the FDR Four Freedoms Club. In turn, the FDR Four Freedoms Club grew out of a study group that met in my apartment every Wednesday for over a year in the late fifties. The study group had focused on the question of how radical groups had developed in America. We looked at the abolitionist, populist, and labor movements. For example, we spent several sessions on the conflicting strategies of William Lloyd Garrison and James Gillespie Birney in the abolitionist movement.

After the study group had been functioning for more than a year, we participated in the late fifties in the march for integrated schools that was organized by Bayard Rustin. At the march, Steve and Jim met a number of young people who were interested in our study group, and the study group expanded rapidly. Soon it became much too large to fit into my small apartment. But some of our new members came from families that had much larger apartments.

About this time, Black students in the South began sit ins at the lunch counters of Woolworth stores demanding to be served. We were in contact with the Black preachers in New York. They asked us to organize protests at the three Woolworth stores in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Our membership grew to about 80.

Soon after this, we were contacted by Tom Hayden and Al Haber. They had gotten the leadership of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) and changed the name to Students for a Democratic Society. (SDS). At the time, national SDS had about 120 members. We had about 80. Steve felt that we should join forces with them and convinced the rest of us. At least a quarter of our members were red diaper babies. Even though their parents had left the CP, they were still leftists.

At the time, there was an existing chapter of SDS in New York with about 15 members, mostly graduate students. They were under the leadership of JoAnne Landy and her then husband Sy Landy. They called us Stalinoid and protested vehemently. They resigned from SDS to emphasize their protest. But the synergy of the merged organizations worked beautifully and SDS grew rapidly from 200 to a few thousand members. Very many of the former FDR Four Freedom people transferred to universities all over America, and many began SDS chapters in the universities they transferred to.

I was probably the oldest person in SDS.

More on SDS

Nowadays, some people view the 1962 convention near Port Huron as the founding convention of SDS. At the time, nobody saw it that way. It was seen as the final breaking of the linkage to the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). A linkage which had been tenuous for more than a year.

The original name of SDS was Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID). Formed before World War I, it eventually represented the right wing of the socialist movement. By 1947 or1948, Doug Kelley, at Michigan State University was using the name SDS locally. At a national level, the official name was not changed, I think, until 1959.

I think it important to document the confluence of forces that shaped SDS in the period prior to Port Huron. Probably the place to start is the article, YSA How It Began, by Guy Williams (probably a pseudonym for Tim Wohlforth)


Guy has a section on Steve Max who was a vice president of YSA as well as a member of the editorial board of their newspaper, the Young Socialist. Guy says that on May 18, 1958, Steve resigned.

A week or so earlier, Steve had attended a study group at my apartment in Manhattan. The people in the study group had very little in common other than all had come to New York from Michigan and all had been in or near the Communist Party in Michigan, and all were out of it.

The purpose of the study group was to do a detailed study of the various social movements in American history. How did they function within the framework of American culture and legal forms? Individuals were to research a topic and lead one or more discussions on the topic. Among topics planned were the American revolution, the struggle for universal adult male suffrage, We wanted to give especial attention to the abolitionist movement, in particular, to the competing visions of James Gillespie Birney and William Lloyd Garrison. Also we planned a heavy emphasis on the Civil War, reconstruction and its defeat. Other topics were women’s suffrage, Populist Party, labor unions, the Socialist Party of Debs, etc. There was even a session on Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

No readings were assigned, but every body was expected to find something on the topic of the evening. We looked for the forms that radicalism assumed on American soil.

We started out with about 20 people that Steve had brought from YSA when he left that organization. But attrition set in and we were down to a steady seven or eight people. Included was Marty Wilner, who we later learned had been assigned by the FBI to monitor our group. I had never imagined that the FBI would assign an informant to a small study group that had no ties to any organization whatsoever.

This was the period when A Philip Randolph, Jackie Robinson, and Harry Belafonte were organizing the Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington D.C. on October 25, 1958. Steve Max and Jim Brook worked enthusiastically to promote the march, and in the process, made many contacts among leaders of the African American community. The march was successful. It drew about 10,000 students.

In Washington, Jim and Steve met three girls from New York who were looking for an organization. The girls had also met Rachelle Horowitz, a leader of YPSL. (This is the Rachelle Horowitz who later married Thomas Donahue, who was national secretary treasurer of the AF of L CIO from 1979 to 1995). The three girls could not decide which way to go. They proposed an informal debate between representatives of the study group and YPSL. The debate was Steve and myself vs., Rachelle, with only the three girls as audience. They chose our study group.

The girls brought their friends, who in turn brought friends. Soon it became clear that my apartment was much too small. But among the newcomers were some wealthy kids whose living room could easily hold 80 people. The people wanted a more formal organization and chose the name Tom Paine Club. They also wanted more formal speakers and began inviting guest speakers. Especially popular were speakers from the magazine Monthly Review.

In February 1960, some Black students sat in at the lunch counters of the Woolworth store in Greensboro North Carolina asking for service. The Black ministers wanted demonstrations at every Woolworth store in New York. They asked the Tom Paine Club to coordinate picketing at the three Woolworth stores in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But one of the members protested that she had joined what was billed as a discussion group. She had not joined an action group. Steve hastily called a meeting where a new organization called the FDR Four Freedoms Club was formed. This group coordinated the picketing at the three Woolworth stores. The picketing was impressive. As a result, when Martin Luther King came to speak at the armory in New York, the Black ministers who were organizing the rally asked the FDR Four Freedoms Club to furnish half of the ushers for seating and for the collection.

Shortly afterwards, Tom Hayden and Al Haber got in touch with Steve Max. They wanted the FDR Four Freedoms Club to affiliate to SDS. A number of months earlier, they had gotten the leadership of SLID. They immediately changed the name to SDS. After discussion, the FDR-Four Freedoms Club decided to affiliate to SDS. At the time, national SDS only had 120 members, and the FDR Four Freedoms Club had 80. But the affiliation produced a minor crisis. The existing New York chapter of SDS had about 15 members. Under the leadership of Joanne Landy, and her then husband, Sy Landy they vigorously opposed the merger and when their opposition failed, all 15 resigned from SDS. As a result, the FDR Four Freedoms contingent was almost as large as the original SDS contingent. The Landys called the FDR Four Freedoms Club people Stalinoid. At least a quarter of the people, and possibly much more, came from families that had earlier been in the Communist Party. But as far as I know, by 1960, Jim Hawley  was the only supporter of the CP in the Four Freedoms Club. Because he was working constructively, no one felt like challenging his membership. But in 1962, the national LID leadership made him the central issue at the Port Huron meeting. The refusal to expel Jim became the central issue in the break with LID.

A couple of years earlier, when we first joined SDS, Steve became national traveller for SDS. Former members of the FDR-Four Freedoms club were transferring to universities all over the northeast and mid west. Steve would visit their campus and help to set up a local SDS chapter. Membership grew at an impressive rate. One estimate was that by the time of the April march against the Viet Nam war, membership had risen to 4000.

The April, 1965, march was planned at the National Council meeting in Manhattan held between Christmas and December 30, 1964. Because I had to work, I was not able to attend all of the sessions. Jim Brook presented the motion to organize the march on , I think, December 28. It immediately encountered enormous opposition from people close to Tom Hayden. Jim Brook had solid support from most people of the FDR-Four Freedoms tradition. The debate raged on Dec 28th, 29th, and 30th. The opposition felt such a march would take resources away from other SDS projects. I was not able to be present for the vote, but I have been told by people I regard as reliable that the majority of people from the FDR-Four Freedoms group voted yes on the march. A majority of people from Tom Hayden?s group voted against the march.. The march was approved by a very narrow margin.

SDS and the ERAP

M.Junaid Alam wrote:

It is precisely the task of our times to work side by side with those millions of Americans victimized by modern capitalism – workers, women, veterans, people of color, and immigrants ­ and join them in carving out the path that will lead all of us toward a more secure and humane future.

This reminds me a great deal of 1963. Most of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) people had reached a similar conclusion. So SDS decided on an ERAP strategy ERAP was the acronym for Economic Research and Action Project. They decided to send in teams of 8 to 16 people to move into chosen poor neighborhoods in about a dozen cities. Their guru was Saul Alinsky, but they had a slightly more redicalized version.. In most places, they succeeded in setting up small organizations that won very limited projects such as getting red lights installed on corners where children frequently crossed the streets, but they. never succeeded in expanding the groups. Later, more moderate groups such as ACORN took over the field. In the meantime, SDS organized the first massive anti war march, which brought in a new flood of members and a new leadership for SDS. The new members were not interested in ERAP and it was forgotten.

The definition of the task given above might be correct, but the problem is HOW? In many cities these people who are victimized are atomized and invisible.

The New American Movement

In drawing up a handbill to advertise a speech by Dorothy Healey, I also left out the final “e” in her name. She was very irritated and told me it was a sign of disrespect.

By that time she had left the CP and had led anywhere’s from 50 to 150 people into the New American Movement (NAM).

I had first heard of NAM in 1970 (I think) when I was visiting Steve Max in New York. At a NAM meeting in his apartment, I found many of the people I had known in early New York SDS. When I returned to Boulder, Colorado, I found a large NAM chapter that had been formed by the merger of three local radical groupings. NAM’s politics differed from. but were as close to EuroCommunist as could be found in America. Ideological differences in Boulder soon arose. Wave after wave of people gravitated to Maoism. I placed a special emphasis on avoiding bitterness and the splits took place peacefully.

The military recruiting offices were open Wednesday evenings and we had anti-military demos there.

NAM was possibly the largest left organization in the Rocky Mountain region. In addition to chapters in Montana, we had chapters in Laramie, Wyoming, and in Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and for a whle in Pueblo, Colorado.

Our politics were in many ways similar to the left wing of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). Eventually, a movement for merger developed. I opposed it from the left. People like Irving Howe in DSOC opposed it from the right. But majorities in both organizations voted for the merger to form Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). I dropped out of DSA over differences with Leo Casey a quarter of a century ago.

Speaking of NAM’s anti-military campaigns, one of our members, Mary Sell, very cleverly maneuvered the ecology people and the Sierra Club types in the city council into supporting one of them


December 28, 2010

The Laurie Penny-SWP dispute

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,student revolt — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

Laurie Penny

As a long time commentator on the British SWP, I could not help but notice the exchange between Laurie Penny, a 23 year old student activist, and a couple of leaders of the group, Alex Callinicos and Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb fame. Actually, I don’t know if Richard is a leader in the formal sense but my fondest hopes is that one day he will lead this organization that despite its boneheaded ideas about party-building has some of the sharpest minds anywhere in the world operating in the name of Marxism.

The first salvo was fired by Ms. Penny in a Comments are Free article in the Guardian newspaper, where she wrote:

It is highly significant that one of the first things this hydra-headed youth movement set out to achieve was the decapitation of its own official leadership. When Aaron Porter of the National Union of Students was seen to be “dithering” over whether or not to support the protests, there were immediate calls for his resignation – and in subsequent weeks the NUS has proved itself worse than irrelevant as an organising force for demonstrations.

Of course, the old left is not about to disappear completely. It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker. Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action.

This is pretty unfair, but something has to be said about street sales or free distribution of printed material, a hallmark of very few groups today outside religious sects like the Nation of Islam and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Marxist-Leninists like the British SWP, or the American SWP that I belonged to.

Around the time that the Comintern was launched, street sales of newspapers were quite common so socialists hawking the Daily Worker or the Militant did not stand out. But by the 1950s at least, this practice had died out.

I remember one of my early experiences selling the Militant at a Stop the Draft Week demonstration in 1969, before I had become totally acculturated to the Trotskyist movement. As a large group of mostly student youth assembled in the streets near the Whitehall Induction Center just a stone’s throw from the Staten Island Ferry, I stood a distance away with a bundle of papers in my left elbow and holding up one with my right hand, saying in just a decibel over conversational level: “Get your latest copy of the Militant”. The whole thing made me feel weird, but I was committed to building a socialist movement and assumed that if the leadership thought it was a good idea, who was I to quibble—especially being the son of a shopkeeper.

After about fifteen minutes or so, I felt a kind of rabbit chop to the back of my neck—not enough to cause me any real pain but enough to grab my attention. It was Dave Frankel, a “youth leader” who would eventually end up writing for the Militant. Frankel was one of the more obnoxious people I ever ran into in the SWP, and—mind you—he had some stiff competition. After I spun around to see who had administered the rabbit chop (an SDS’er?), I saw it was Frankel who glared at me with a cold grin on his face and said “Sell, comrade, sell.”

I should have followed my instincts and resigned on the spot. Indeed, about a month later I met with the SWP organizer to inform him that I had plans to go back to graduate school, which would leave me little time for party activities. He replied that my services were urgently needed in Boston where Peter Camejo was involved with a faction fight against a group of comrades who had adapted to the Worker-Student-Alliance wing of SDS. That sounded like fun to me, so I moved up to Boston leaving thoughts of graduate school behind.

Yes, I know. I am going off on tangents. That is what happens when you get to be my age.

For Penny, the real dividing line seems to be between spontaneity and social networking on one side and “old left” newspaper sellers with their top-down approach on the other. She wrote:

For these young protesters, the strategic factionalism of the old left is irrelevant. Creative, courageous and inspired by situationism and guerrilla tactics, they have a principled understanding of solidarity. For example, assembling fancy-dress flash mobs in Topshop to protest against corporate tax avoidance may seem frivolous, but this movement is daring to do what no union or political party has yet contemplated – directly challenging the banks and business owners who caused this crisis.

Unfortunately bold tactics can only go so far in a mass movement that rests on a relatively weak social base, like university students. Situationism does certainly have its appeal to art students and the like, but I am not sure whether the heavy battalions of labor are easily drawn in to such actions. Indeed, the decline of the anti-globalization movement can be attributed in large part to adventuristic street tactics that could only go so far in forcing the ruling class to abandon the WTO and the like.

Alex Callinicos clearly has a handle on this given his long background in Marxist politics. In his reply that appeared on Comments are Free, he notes:

The important question now is how the student movement can maintain its forward momentum – despite the passage of higher tuition fees through parliament – and invigorate much broader resistance to the coalition’s austerity programme. Penny rightly welcomes the support that Len McCluskey, the new general secretary of Unite, has given the student movement. But his intervention underlines the fact that old political problems don’t simply go away when a new movement emerges…

All this points to the fact that trade union leaders are a lot better at fighting talk than effective action. And this is a very old problem, one with which feminists and Marxists like Penny and me have been grappling since at least the beginning of the 20th century. One of the strengths of student movements is the speed and elan with which they close the gap between words and deeds. This was as visible in France in 1968 as in Britain in 2010. But students lack the collective economic strength that, for all the setbacks it has suffered, the trade union movement still possesses.

Callinicos is far too smart to repeat the formulas of the cruder Marxist-Leninist groups, but it is crystal-clear—especially to an erstwhile practitioner like me—that he was alluding to the need for a revolutionary party that can unite various social layers—students, workers, etc.—into a common fighting front, like fingers being transformed into a fist. You get the picture, right?

The only problem with this conception is that the SWP does not have porous borders like the student movement. The relationship is totally one-sided. The students discuss strategy and tactics openly at their meetings and come to a vote. Anybody can say what they want, as long as it is understood that a democratic decision will guide the actions of the movement. But the SWP’s borders are guarded carefully against penetration from the outside. Students understand that the SWP comes to its decisions at meetings that are limited to party members. Once a decision is made, the line is presented to the mass movement as a fait accompli. No matter how convincing the case made for a particular tactic by someone like Laurie Penny, the SWP’er will vote in strict discipline with his or her comrades.

To put it as succinctly as possible, this methodology has been the ruin of the Marxist-Leninist left even as it has served its narrow, short-term interests. In a way, the democratic centralism of the self-declared vanguard parties is a mirror reflection of the business model of late capitalism in which quarterly earnings reports trump the long-term viability of the system. In seeking to advance its own narrow interests through a mechanical understanding of democratic centralism that has little to do with the way the Bolsheviks operated, groups such as the SWP can mobilize its ranks to get things done in a hurry even if it means isolating itself in the mass movement. The American SWP used to call itself “the big red machine” after this fashion. It helped us win votes at antiwar conferences even if it meant alienating the independents–our versions of Laurie Penny. Their numbers were legion.

Let’s turn now to the always refreshing and insightful Richard Seymour, whose response to Penny appears in the Liberal Conspiracy blog, where Penny has held forth on a fairly regular basis. Richard concludes his article thusly:

SWP members are willing to accept serious flack and criticism from the Left. We’re not infallible, we have made mistakes, and we’re open to learning from experience. And even if you don’t agree with the lessons that we draw, it doesn’t matter.

We don’t make it a condition of unity that you agree with us, or even like us very much. But it would help if, when we’re actually trying to help build unity in the most urgent situations, such as the struggle against fascism, others on the Left don’t try to undermine that unity with spurious and ungrounded attacks on those they disagree with.

Again, the problem is with the understanding of unity. For Richard, unity means the ability of left groups to work with other left groups and with unaffiliated activists. Now it does not mean very much if the SWP has figured out ways in the past to work with Peter Taaffe’s group or the CP or with any other left party. It is understood that these parties will come to a conference with their agendas set pretty much in stone. Their goal is to persuade the unaffiliated to vote for their proposals. That’s the way that the American SWP operated and it is frankly little more than a charade. A truly living mass movement is democratic to the core. And how can you have true democracy when decisions are made beforehand at someone’s central committee?

As I said earlier, this is not the way that the Bolsheviks operated. Proof of this is in John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World” where Reed refers to the fight in the Bolshevik party about whether power should be seized from Kerensky:

However, the right wing of the Bolsheviki, led by Riazanov, Kameniev and Zinoviev, continued to campaign against an armed uprising. On the morning of October 31st appeared in Rabotchi Put the first installment of Lenin’s “Letter to the Comrades,” one of the most audacious pieces of political propaganda the world has ever seen. In it Lenin seriously presented the arguments in favour of insurrection, taking as text the objections of Kameniev and Riazanov.

As it turns out, Rabotchi Put was not an internal discussion bulletin of the kind that we were warned never to allow “outsiders” to see in the American Trotskyist movement, but the daily Bolshevik newspaper that was sold on the streets all over St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Lenin’s article is found in an appendix to Reed’s book and it is a real eye-opener. Against Kameniev and Riazanov’s argument that “we have not a majority”, Lenin replies that they “simply don’t want to look the real situation in the face” and draws the readers’ attention to the peasant uprising sweeping Russia, which cannot be readily reflected in parliamentary totals.

Needless to say, this is simply not the way that modern-day self-styled “Leninist” parties operate. They think that having members disagree with each other in public is a “social democratic talk shop”. But in fact, that is the way that the Bolsheviks operated and that allowed them to win the majority of Russian workers and peasants. If you are of course content to run a closed-off sect that does not have to put up with the inconveniences of the unenlightened masses, then none of this is particularly attractive even if it is historically faithful to the real Bolshevik party.

It would appear that Laurie Penny has the final word in The New Statesman, where she blogs regularly. In a reply to Alex Callinicos, she is more right than wrong, particularly this observation:

The question of the paper is fantastically indicative. The notion of a communistic worker’s revolution developed smack in the middle of the golden age of newspapers, which is why Lenin’s ideas about the function of a party paper – that it ought to be a key organising tool produced for the edification of the masses by an influential vanguard of radicals – were and remain so important to many radicals who see themselves as the inheritors of Marx and Lenin. At the time, Lenin was advocating revolution that utilised the structures of the most cutting-edge technology anyone had available to them. This new wave of unrest is happening at a similar turning point in the history of communications technology. New groups can exchange information and change plans via twitter and text message in the middle of demonstrations. It’s no longer about edicts delivered by an elite cadre and distributed to the masses, or policy voted on at national meetings and handed down by delegates. It’s not the technology itself so much as the mentality fostered by that technology that is opening up new possibilities for resistance.

The Socialist Workers Party and other far left organisations do not have a monopoly on class consciousness. Many organisers of this year’s student revolutions have a background in far left agitation, and many more do not – but nearly all of us know precisely what’s at stake. If any one group tries to claim ownership or exert control over this new movement, they will have missed the point entirely. Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It’s far bigger than that.

I doubt that the SWP will agree with her, but I hope that at least she is listened to carefully for in many respects she is closer to the spirit of Lenin’s party than they might have gathered. As some self-proclaimed and unrepentant Marxists try to recapture the spirit of the messy, free-spirited and even anarchic (in the sense of uncontrolled) nature of the Bolshevik party, we will eventually find ourselves converging not only with Laurie Penny but the real mass movement that exists, which by its very definition will not belong to any closed-off party but to the entire population of working people and its allies.


Richard Seymour has a lengthy reply to Laurie Penny here:


It is mostly a defense of newspapers that makes every point in the world worth making but that fails to grasp that the SWP newspaper does not function like Lenin’s Iskra. The sooner these comrades come to terms with this, the better off they will be. I would not hold my breath waiting, however.

December 10, 2010

15 year old British student raps it down

Filed under: financial crisis,student revolt — louisproyect @ 10:56 pm

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