Cochran Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Bert Cochran

Toward a New Movement of Democratic Socialism

(November 1956)

From American Socialist, November 1956.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive created by Louis Proyect.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

OUR symposium tonight occurs while the American Left is in the throes of soul-searching. And that is hardly surprising. American radicalism has practically hit rock bottom. In the era of the crumbling of capitalist power around the world, and the disintegration of imperial empires, the socialist movement in this country has never been weaker. One has to go back to the years immediately following the Civil War for any comparable period of socialist isolation.

People got into the habit of assigning the blame for this humiliating condition to inexorable forces outside our control and beyond our reach. There is this much truth to the proposition: It is no simple matter to build a socialist movement in a country that is rich, whose economy is booming, and whose rulers still have an enormous hold on the thinking of the people. But it is finally dawning on many of us that we can’t put all the blame on history, or sociology; that a good part of the fault lies right inside the Left, that the finger of guilt points to the Left’s own derelictions, its own mistakes, its stubborn blindness, and its colossal stupidities.

We cannot avoid an inquest into the past; not in order to rekindle old quarrels, but to clear the ground for the present and future.

For two decades, in the thirties and forties, American radicalism was dominated by the Communist Party. This movement possessed an incomparable asset: It had a membership that was fanatically devoted and extraordinarily energetic. They did a lot of worth-while things in their heyday. They were the first to organize the unemployed after the 1929 crash, they pitched in on the early battles of the CIO, they fought against Negro discrimination at a time when the Negro did not command the wide support that he enjoys today.

But the good work, the militancy in labor battles, the zeal on behalf of the oppressed, were all vitiated – worse than that, turned to ashes – because the Communist Party rested on a big lie. It pretended to be a party of the American working class, run by its own membership. But, as is now admitted, it was not run by the membership at all; and its policies were brazenly manipulated from the outside.

TWICE in its history, its national leaders were unceremoniously given the gate, like office boys. Jay Lovestone in 1929, Earl Browder in 1946. Was the membership dissatisfied with their stewardship? Was that it? No, the membership had nothing to say about it. On both occasions, the dismissals were triggered by a signal from abroad.

This represented a startling innovation in the socialist movement. The history of socialism has recorded the existence of right-wing parties, left-wing parties, democratically run parties, bureaucratically run parties, but it had before given birth to a party that did not own its soul, and whose leaders could not tell you from day to what their program was going to be. For five years after 1929, the Communists proclaimed that Socialists were social fascists, that the AFL leaders were fascist; they went in for united fronts, but only from below, in order to blow up the other organization.

Then, Dimitrov made a speech in Moscow, and the Communist Party flip-flopped, and became the tail end of the Democratic Party, and former deep-dyed enemies of the working class were now transformed into progressive leaders of mankind.

Five more years went by, and they were defending the Stalin-Hitler Pact, Molotov informed us that fascism was a matter of taste, and ‘The Yanks Weren’t Coming.’

Two years later, Hitler attacked Russia, and like all converts, the Communists became holier than the Pope. They denounced Lewis for the war-time coal strikes designed to secure some justice for the miners, they attacked A. Philip Randolph’s March-On-Washington which aimed to get jobs for the Negro people, they advocated piece work and speed-up inside the unions.

WELL, the word finally got around that the Communist Party was just a big hoax. It wasn’t a matter of mistakes having been made, or mistakes being corrected. None of us are free of error. But how can you deal with leaders who aren’t really there, who are figments of somebody’s imagination? How can you deal with a party which doesn’t do its own thinking?

When this fact sank in among a lot of American people, the Communist party was finished – and, I may add parenthetically, everybody else on the Left got dragged down in the process. The party leaders and members only woke up to this fact after the Twentieth Congress, and have been doing a lot of breast-beating since. But, as discussion shows, they can’t jump out of their political skins – and it’s awfully late now, anyhow. The party is too disgraced and tainted to make a comeback. Its future is strictly behind it.

I think the chap in the Nation who proposed to the Communist Party that it dissolve, and let its individual members – yes, and leaders – play a constructive role in a new radical movement, was giving them good advice. And from what I am told, a good many are taking that advice.

But the fact that the Communist Party is behind the eight-ball doesn’t solve the problem of the American Left We have to face up to the reality that the whole radical movement has disintegrated until only a number of splinters remain. The rock on which this radical movement split and split and split, and finally foundered – was Russia. This is a towering fact, which we have to digest, which we can’t simply deplore, or exorcise out of existence.

What we have to ask ourselves, I think, is this: Is it possible now in the light of the dolorous experience of American radicalism, and the greater knowledge we possess today of the Russian experiment, is it possible to look at Russia from higher vantage ground, and from the viewpoint of our own American needs even if we have some differences in our precise appreciations? Can the Left free itself from unthinking idolatry and the whitewashing of Russian crimes against socialism; and, on the other extreme, from the embittered hostility which misses the epic movement of historic progress, and can see in the Soviet bloc only the anti-Christ of our time.

IN other words, I am making a plea for sanity, for more mature judgement, for deeper historical insight, for an end to Left bigotry and Babbittry, for a ceasefire in our own cold war, for an effort at cooperation, and where possible, reconciliation.

If we do not regroup our effectives, if we cannot integrate our work, then it may be that the present radical movement in this country, from one end of the spectrum to the other, will go under in the flood, and a new generation will have to build a socialist organization from the ground up.

If we can find the inner resources to unravel this knotty riddle of our lifetime, then we have the chance to reconstruct the movement on sturdier foundations and along more mature lines, and the challenge of democratic socialism, compelling and clear, can again be flung into the market place – where it has unnecessarily been absent far too long.

B. Cochran Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 13.12.2005