Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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:


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.




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.


  1. Reblogged this on Eyewitness Egypt and commented:
    Well worth reading. My thinking is tending exactly in the direction summed up in the last few paragraphs of quotes from Bert Cochran. Parenthetically, I did know Milt and Edith Zaslow in Los Angeles, when I was a member of a group called the Revolutionary Marxist Committee that fused with the Socialist Workers Party in 1977. My relations with Milt and Edith centered around thee fact that they cheerfully handed out SWP Internal Bulletins to anyone who wanted to understand the FAPO fight within the SWP. Personally it was all way over my head in those days but I was merely a conduit feeding that massive tome-like documents to leaders of the RMC. Milt and Edith had an apartment in the second floor that was approached by a narrow staircase that had an locked iron grating at the foot to keep out people who wanted to firebomb Milt and Edith for their efforts on behalf of, if I remember correctly, the Black Panther Party. @Melody Roberts may remember that part better than I.

    Comment by davidbyrnemcdonaldiii — July 18, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

  2. Louis
    Thank you. Cochrane & Braverman were principled & correct. While in NYC some years ago, David McReynolds gave me.some books from Bet C library, after his demise. I am so happy my neighbor & stalwart Dave Walters has American Socialist uploaded.
    Please., in considering current efforts, do NOTforget the valiant efforts of CrossRoads magazine, which was initiated by Frontline Political Org., the sane remains of Line of March.
    Best & solidarity

    Comment by Tom Edminster — July 18, 2014 @ 5:42 pm

  3. One would think that by July 2014 the general program of communism would be relatively well known to at least large numbers of conscious workers. One could follow thinking the theories of Marx and Engels on dialectical and historical materialism, value, surplus value, the accumulation of capital, the class struggle, and finally the dictatorship of the proletariat along with Lenin’s supplemental work on 20th century monopoly capitalism and imperialism, would by 2014 be accepted as generally outlining the social laws of our epoch and the coming socialist society. If one had those thoughts today they are sadly disappointed. However, here I find myself in July of 2014 with little more than a handful of class conscious workers extant to even converse with.
    It is good that The American Socialist magazine is again finding the light of day It had many worthwhile articles and contributors, my own father, in fact contributed articles for the magazine and we subscribed. In my opinion American Socialist in general and Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman in particular were wrong in rejecting the concept of a Leninist combat party in favor of a theory that a party could be organized and consolidated from forces thrown up from mass action and the class struggle. Lets look at the forces after the Feb. revolution of 1917, which was accomplished BEFORE the workers created the soviets. You had the Kadets, the Octobrists, the Trudoviks, the SR’s the left SR’s, the Mensheviks, the Menshevik Internationalists, the Anarchists, and the Bolsheviks. The Soviets came into being with the SR’s & Mensheviks being the overwhelming leaders; the task of the Mensheviks and SR’s was to expropriate the masses politically for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. The reason the proletariat did not seize power in Feb. was because the Bolsheviks were not equal to their objective task & failed to stop the Mensheviks & SR’s from exploiting the masses politically for the provisional government, in fact until early April the Bolsheviks became the left flank for “revolutionary democracy”. The first revolution in February was spontaneous, the revolution urged by Lenin & Trotsky was to be planned in every principal point, as the Oct. revolution called not for the overthrow of a past system but to establish an entirely new social order. It is well to keep in mind the Bolsheviks did not form the soviets but simply utilized them as a superior form of struggle and for a long time they didn’t call for the dictatorship of the proletariat but for an end to dual power (provisional government vs soviets). Finally, the planned insurrection of Oct. was the deliberate action of a combat party behind which stood an overwhelming part of working class. The Bolshevik revolution wasn’t made by amalgams of well intentioned people thrown up in struggle and that concept of party building put forward by Cochran then and Solidarity now is doomed and more reflects another and deeper problem . What Cochran and Braverman lost and Solidarity never had is the faith in the working class to carry out its historic mission. If the working class isn’t going to get us to socialism we have to find another way to get there hence the gyrations and opportunism of people like Peter Camejo, Tariq Ali, and the amalgam around Solidarity. I still believe in the general program of communism that I mentioned at the start of my comments, simply put classes are bound up with particular phases in the development of production, the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat and that the emancipation of the working class is a task for the class itself and the revolutionary combat party. At any rate, I’ll be glad to reread the American Socialist again, good work.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — July 18, 2014 @ 11:00 pm

  4. David Walters, in addition to introducing a valuable new source of left history and theory, writes of the need for “new efforts across the board to transcend the dogmatism and sectarianism that have hobbled the Marxist left for so many years.”
    Agreed. But what might these new efforts be? At least there was a left of sorts around in 1954 for Bert Cochran to bleakly assess. Now there is none, save for scattered, increasingly conservative remnants. And this situation offers us the opportunity to understand past failures and create a new, effective left.
    But how? What has been historically missing from left theory and those many, many revolutionary attempts to achieve socialism? Marxism remains critical to any revolutionary project, but something essential must have always been missing from Marxism, too.
    The essential missing element in the left has been an ignorance of the organizational rules of life, community, and revolutionary processes. Most unfortunately, the new sciences of living, organizational relations I’m promoting–save for evolution–came after Marx and Engels, who would have devoured them and applied them to the social arena. The Marxist materialist dialectic correctly understands “nature, human society, and thought” as systemic processes, but what is the ORGANIZATION of those processes (and of revolutionary movements and communism)?
    The new sciences of the organizational relations of complex living systems (communities) show the way, but today’s Marxians have shunned them. Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins are, sadly, emblematic of this intellectual, scientific, and Marxist impasse.
    So to Lewontin, Levins, David Walters, and everyone else I will point to Engels’s declaration at Marx’s graveside: “Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force.”
    We who must consciously organize our lives must now learn how life (material living systems) organizes. Human lives and societies organized in this manner, like the rest of nature, will be “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” That describes ecosystems and communism. Life is community; human community is communism.
    I hope my highly condensed “comment” hasn’t been too far out of line with customary Unrepentant Marxist discourse and culture. But you see, the human species and the left have been captured by capitalism and we’re now passively watching an accelerating imprisonment and destruction of our species and ….

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — July 19, 2014 @ 1:36 am

  5. Just a very simple “FYI”…

    I’m not a sympathizer of the politics of the American Socialist Union. I hale from the Cannon wing (though I think the expulsion was the dumbest thing the SWP ever did bar none up until the Barnes era). But my own politics or pov are 100% irrelevant to my having helped in digitizing this interesting magazine. I come from a “historic” tendency, by that I mean I believe that it’s OK to stand above polemics and say “this shit is important. It’s part of our common history, it needs to be *preserved*” so that everyone henceforth can have access to it, for generations to come”. Our history, THIS history, is almost unknown, and it’s literally crumbling into the dust bin. I’ve dedicated my life to preserving this working class history, no matter how obscure or seemingly irrelevant to our daily political struggles.

    Specifically with regards to The American Socialist, we’ve found historically that lots of people interested in socialist history don’t know this magazine. They never heard of it. Cochran who? I get often. This is true. Yet from a quality point of view, it is, when people read it, see it as on par with the much better known magazine that also started in this period and continues today, Monthly Review (where some of the ASU people ended up). I’d like to see The American Socialist get “the same billing” as MR. The quality of this writing done in no small party by the large cadre of ‘worker-intellectuals’, often unsigned in the magazine as “from a reporter”, often steelworkers (from Chicago and Cleveland) or from the UAW, from Detroit. One doesn’t have a ‘agree’ with the politics to understand the historic value of this lost art among socialists.

    For this reason I’m proud to help in disseminating this magazine and keeping it around forever.

    David Walters

    Comment by David Walters — July 19, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

  6. When did Engels tell Americsn socialists not to reprint the manifesto? That’s something I’ve never heard before.

    Comment by Dominic — July 21, 2014 @ 9:12 pm

  7. I can’t find any such Engelsian prohibition of reprinting the Manifesto in America. Engels was almost surely pointing to the obvious: that application of the principles of the Manifesto depend upon the historical conditions obtaining in a particular circumstance, and that American realities differed somewhat from European. As Engels remarked in a 1886 letter, “Our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action.”

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — July 22, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

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