My vacation reading last month included a memoir of sorts (Early Companions: A Novella) by Werner Cohn, a retired professor of sociology with whom I’ve dialogued and argued over the years. It’s labelled as fiction because he disguises the identities of some people he writes about in short sections that relate to chapters in his life. In one, he discusses his years growing up as a Jew in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In the second, he relates his brief time as a young member of a revolutionary socialist group in New York, headed by Max Shachtman. Finally, he recounts the beginning of his career as a young professor of sociology at a Canadian university, focusing upon the enigmatic life and death of a charismatic academic who was likewise a Jewish emigre from Nazi Germany.

Cohn on his book's backcover

It’s the middle part about Shachtman and the rarely acknowledged influences that he had, which I examine here. Cohn is undoubtedly correct in ridiculing the grandiose sectarian belief system that his “comrades” promoted at the time; his portrait of CLR James (aka Jimmy Johnson) is especially devastating, and his depiction of Irving Howe as an arrogant enforcer of discipline for Shachtman also seems accurate. But Prof. Cohn did not pick up the story of Shachtman and Howe becoming more important later on.

Shachtman began as an American disciple of Leon Trotsky, breaking with the exiled revolutionary in 1939 over the nature of the Soviet Union. Trotsky regarded the USSR as a “deformed workers’ state,” worthy of defense by virtue of being a “workers’ state.” Shachtman postulated that the Stalinist state had given rise to a party elite that constituted a new ruling class oppressing the workers. He laid out this theory years later in The Bureaucratic Revolution: The Rise of the Stalinist State (Donald Press, 1962). This line of Shachtman’s thinking inspired an independent socialist current that was in revolutionary opposition to both the capitalist West and the Stalinist East. This “Third Camp” brand of radicalism is perhaps best exemplified in the US today by the New Politics journal and the Campaign for Peace and Democracy.

Shachtman (rt) with Trotsky & Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1937

Shachtman never moved history directly, but he did affect the evolution of the Socialist Party USA, which he helped wean away from independent electoral activity in the 1960s, steering most of its members in the 1960s and ’70s into supporting the Democratic Party and the mainstream AFL-CIO. His strategic concept was to move society in a progressive direction by aligning the Democratic Party more closely with the union movement. It was his sense of acting strategically, as opposed to the moralistic emotionalism that has generally marked the left in this country, which set Shachtman and his followers apart. But this originally Leninist “end-justifies-the-means” instrumentalist conception is also problematic.

His wife Yetta wound up working for the pioneering (albeit controversial) teachers’ union head Al Shanker as his secretary (he had been a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League). They lived in a small house in Floral Park, on the border of Queens and Long Island, until Shachtman passed away in 1972. (I visited them as part of a YPSL delegation in 1969 or ’70). He inspired a small, dedicated professional cadre in the Socialist Party (later the Social Democrats USA) with his fierce anti-Stalinism, including a semi-hawkish stand on the Vietnam War.

Eventually, these people became enamored of Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a hawkish pro-Labor Democrat and linked up with two Jackson aides named Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. These same folks became associated with the first generation of neo-conservatives, with some getting jobs in the Reagan administration.

Irving Howe at City University of New York

Irving Howe wound up with an entirely different trajectory, becoming a prominent academic. He was a champion of secular Yiddish-language culture and literature (including as a major booster of Isaac Bashevis Singer) as well as a prominent writer and editor on democratic socialism, especially as a founding editor of Dissent magazine. Furthermore, Howe campaigned for peace in the Middle East as an advocate for Israel’s Peace Now movement.

Shachtman also touched the career of Michael Harrington, the last great American socialist thinker and leader of the 20th century, who–like Howe–became less doctrinaire and more moderate than Shachtman. Interestingly, Harrington (as well as becoming the best-selling author of The Other America that helped inspire LBJ’s War on Poverty) had a small but real impact on Democratic Party politics as the floor captain for the pro-Ted Kennedy faction at the 1978 mid-term party convention; the opposing pro-Carter forces were led by none other than Hillary Clinton. These former Shachtmanites led the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in splitting with the Social Democrats USA in the early 1970s, due to the SD’s somewhat hawkish leanings. (Shachtman and a majority of the SD supported a negotiated resolution of the Vietnam War, whereas DSOC favored a unilateral withdrawal.)

Ironically, Shachtman had spawned a new generation of acolytes who eventually followed to an extreme, the logic of his strategic thinking and overly rigid anti-Communism into the Reagan administration. Still, the conviction of latter-day Shachtmanites was based on a large kernel of fact: political movements defining themselves as “Marxist-Leninist” or “Communist” had almost invariably established totalitarian police states, which were assumed impregnable to peaceful protest and internal reform. Shachtman never lived to see the day when most such regimes finally disintegrated, primarily through non-violent means.

In 1982, DSOC merged with the New America Movement (Michael Lerner was one of the latter’s leaders) to form the Democratic Socialists of America. Unfortunately, it was the latter-day Shachtmanites who influenced history more directly than the older group of Shachtman “alumni” who created Dissent magazine, the DSA and the Socialist Scholars Conference (a forerunner of today’s US Social Forum).

I wrote in more detail about this history in an article published in the online Engage Journal in Jan. 2006, “How Neoconservatives’ Shift from Left to Right Inspired Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Thinking.” Aside from buying Early Companions on Amazon.com, one can find it via a free pdf download.

 


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