Raya Dunayevskaya 1954

Bert Cochran, Caucus Builder

Source: Correspondence, February 6, 1954. This piece appeared as Dunayevskaya’s regular unsigned column, “Two Worlds: Notes From a Diary.” It is included in The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, microfilm numbers 9339 and 9340;
Transcribed: by Kevin Michaels.

Workers in unions are familiar with the radical who writes programs for union caucuses. One of the most adept was Bert Cochran, the leader of the group that has recently split away from American Trotskyism (Correspondence, Vol. I, No. 7).

During the depression Cochran was a student at the College of the City of New York. It was the period when young intellectuals like Cochran joined the strike movement of the workers and the unemployed and gave it “leadership.” In 1934 when he was active in the famous Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio, Cochran met some Trotskyists to whom he was greatly attracted as “theoreticians” of the class struggle. Where the Russian Revolution of 1917 made James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, break with the Industrial Workers of the World and accept the doctrine of “a vanguard party to lead the workers to power,” the American crisis in the 1930’s made Cochran accept the doctrine of the party to lead the workers.

His glib tongue and facile pen soon made him a “specialist” in trade union work. But Cochran’s specialty was not to organize masses, but caucuses.

Workers, Union Leaders and Radicals

The average worker was in the struggle for unionization because he wanted a total change in the conditions of work and the relations at work. These workers were ingenious in the ways they were devising to fight the corporations and the fledgling bureaucracy. To keep themselves in leadership, the young labor bureaucracy was in need of an ideology, a system of ideas that would attract these workers. This is where the radicals came in. They wrote the programs for these union leaders. Homer Martin’s was being written by Jay Lovestone; Wyndham Mortimer’s by the Communist Party; Reuther’s, it was generally believed, was also written by the C. P.

When GM first recognized the UAW it still had no intention of taking the union seriously enough to let the workers decide the conditions of work. Immediately there was a division between the union leadership and the union ranks as to how to enforce the contract. The workers took the road of “quickies.” Homer P. Martin, president of the UAW, opposed wildcats.

When the C. P. succeeded in prying Martin’s first lieutenant (Frankensteen) away from him, Bert Cochran saw his chance to play a leading role. He came to Martin with a 20-point program which ranged from a fight against the “big corporations” to fighting Communist “collective security.” In a word, Martin got from Cochran the program to fight the Communists, and Cochran got from Martin the post of UAW-WPA director.

The partnership didn’t last long. At the very first strike Martin fired Cochran. That was a lucky thing for Cochran for Martin was soon to bolt the CIO.

Cochran produced a nine-point “Union Building” program and came with it to the Cleveland Convention of the UAW-CIO. The Trotskyists claimed that at least half of the points were accepted by the convention, that is to say, were bandied about by the union leadership.

Cochran never worked with the rank and file of the union for whom he had nothing but contempt. The few times he worked in the shop, he was known to the workers as a sloppy worker, one whom they had “to carry.” But on the platform or in the caucus room, he talked down to them. He was as cynical as any labor bureaucrat from the smirk around his lips, the slouch of his shoulders, down to the thumb pointed at the audience as his voice rose to a crescendo.

The Party Leader And The Labor Bureaucrat

The Trotskyist leadership required of its members the following: 1) Every member who worked in a factory had to belong to a union caucus. 2) He had to attend all caucus meetings and vote. 3) He had to convert as many shopmates as possible to interest in caucus politics. 4) He must do all the legwork for the union bureaucracy.

When the Party rank and file has proven itself in caucus building, the Party leader makes a deal with the lower rungs of the bureaucracy for certain “key posts.” That’s what the Trotskyists consider having a “mass base.”

Nomination for alternate membership in the National Committee (the leading body of the party) was the reward for becoming the intermediary between the labor bureaucracy and the party. The “politically advanced” member was the one who wrote the labor bureaucrat’s leaflets and yet left the daily policy in the factory to the discretion of the labor bureaucrat. A full member of the National Committee gave the orders to the rank and file. Such an order-giver was Bert Cochran.

When in 1941 James P. Cannon went to jail for his anti-war views, Cochran blossomed forth as a “theoretician.” He did it all on his own too. If, in the trade union he never worked with the rank and file, in his own party he did not even consult his co-leaders. He no sooner became editor of the Fourth International, the theoretical magazine of the American Trotskyists, than he spread himself out on a position which was in fundamental opposition to the Trotskyist theory that nationalized property equals workers’ states. This petty type that Cochran is has as little respect for fundamental ideas as for rank and file people. Neither matter to him. Not long after Cochran had accurately described Yugoslavia as a capitalist country, he turned around 180° and declared it to be a workers’ state.

Now this sudden involvement in international politics had nothing whatever to do either with actual world events or theoretical developments. What was bothering Cochran was not Europe, but the United States; not Communists, but the native labor bureaucracy. So long as the trade union leaders needed these radicals to write their programs, Cochran, the petty intellectual, was satisfied. But the period following World War II is one of total crisis, and not time to play at radical politics. The labor bureaucracy cleaned house, throwing out not alone the Communists but the Trotskyists from all union positions. And Cochran began to display the signs of a well-known political type – the man who is desperately determined to get out from where he is.

What American Trotskyism is reaping is the harvest they sowed with their theory of “a party to lead the masses.” That accounts for the strange spectacle of the double attraction for Trotskyists: Communism and the American labor bureaucracy. Cochran did not leave alone. He took one-third of their membership – because Cannon taught the that the workers could get nowhere without a “party to lead.”