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Bert Cochran

Trends on the Left: A Tour Report

(May 1957)

From American Socialist, May 1957.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive created by Louis Proyect.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I WAS absent from our office for almost a month beginning with the middle of March, during which time I lectured in Detroit, Chicago, Berkeley, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and, in addition, participated in a great number of house meetings attended by anywhere from fifteen to a hundred people. A brief rundown on some of these meetings has interest beyond house-organ commentary, as they mirror the trend of some of the Left activities in the country’s main centers.

I lectured in Detroit to an audience of about 130 under the auspices of the Detroit Labor Forum. This is a non-partisan forum organization in which quite a number of unattached radicals are participating. It was set up about a year ago through the efforts of supporters of the American Socialist and independent radicals and has by now become the most impressive institution in town for the organization of forums, debates and general discussion. Because it is genuinely non-partisan, attempts to address itself to the independent radical, and seeks solutions to the great problems of our times rather than devoting itself to the intra-mural bickerings of small sects, it has won a position and attracts larger audiences than Detroit has seen in the past decade. As will be shown, this development is not unique with Detroit.

One other little sidelight is of more than passing interest. My lecture was attended by a scattering of Auto Union people as well as a group of students from Ann Arbor, and I had a two-hour discussion with the latter at a house gathering after the forum. There was a reason for the attendance of each group. The UAW in Michigan is seething with grievances and nervousness as a result of unemployment, speed-up and the shift of plants to other parts of the country. We are still a long way from socialist consciousness or even interest, but as always, a pool of social discontent produces a freer atmosphere, and numbers of isolated individuals begin thinking in more fundamental terms and get interested in more basic discussions. As for the students, I cannot be sure as to the full meaning, but I have observed in a number of spots that small radical grouplets are sprouting up on a number of campuses. I think the general picture drawn in the Nation some weeks back is eminently right, but I also think that the political atmosphere is slightly balmier, and that consequently intellectual discussions are reviving in isolated corners of some of the larger campuses among the few who are unhappy at playing Babbitt and are choking in the climate of conformity.

They have a Eugene V. Debs forum in Chicago that is very similar to the Detroit proposition, operates on pretty much the same conception, and attracts a similar audience. What brought me to Chicago this time, however, was the third anniversary reception for the American Socialist. It was a gala affair in every respect. All of us are indebted to Harvey and Jesse O’Connor for offering the use of their home and for their splendid help. The cordial greetings sent to the gathering by Paul Sweezy of Monthly Review, I.F. Stone, Joseph Starobin and others were cherished by all. And finally, thanks are due to the large group present for their financial contributions. Everyone had a good time. The atmosphere was festive. The food and drinks were superb. And the speeches were pretty good.

IN San Francisco an almost identical development has taken place as in Detroit and Chicago. George Hitchcock, well-known figure in San Francisco both as a playwright and political activist, decided several months back that the town needed a central discussion center. He called together some of his friends and they set up ‘The Independent Socialist Forum of the Bay Area.’ Their first public meeting featuring Carey McWilliams attracted a good-sized audience. I was the second speaker and addressed an audience in the neighborhood of 175. It is noteworthy that Hitchcock and his friends had come to the same conclusion as others in different parts of the country: That what is required is a discussion of the big problems of our times and addressing ourselves primarily to the unattached radicals and people who are first becoming interested in socialist thought.

Incidentally, my lecture in San Francisco must be considered a historic event as it was delivered on the day of the biggest earthquake that the city experienced since 1906. I had thought that the meeting would surely be cancelled or postponed, but the arrangements committee went right ahead. Obviously it takes more than an earthquake to ruffle the hardy San Franciscan pioneering stock (some of it recently transplanted from New York). The quake pointed up the great American genius for organization – tinctured with ballyhoo. I turned the radio on within a matter of minutes after the big jolt at 12:13 noon. The Mayor was on the air giving us the lowdown on the situation and the considerable arrangements that were in full operation (and incidentally putting in a plug on how he was right on the job). In two minutes I had a picture of what was transpiring throughout the area, what the experts thought, what the public authorities were doing, and what safety steps I was expected to take. After a couple more city officials filled in details, a chorus came on to soothe my jangled nerves, singing, ‘Don’t take my love, my dear, unless you really care.’ Everything was under control.

What with the successful forum, the several house meetings with trade unionists and others, the student forum I addressed in Berkeley, and the half hour radio interview over Station KPFA, I feel that the American Socialist is much better known in the area, and our circulation there ought to go up appreciably.

The symposium at the Embassy Hotel in Los Angeles, addressed by Vincent Hallinan, Dorothy Healey, William Warde, Carl Marzani and myself, and chaired by Reuben Borough, was attended by over 1,000. It made a big impact on radical circles. The first impression of this type of meeting is invariably favorable, audiences react initially (before the thing is overdone), in the hope that a new approach can be found to revive radicalism in our day. Here, I found a strong sentiment for the establishment of an independent forum, and likely, the Embassy meeting will serve as a preliminary for such a project. In Los Angeles, I had my biggest round of receptions, house gatherings and the like, and have big hopes that the American Socialist will now enjoy substantial support.

MY overall impression is that the Communist movement has had its authority destroyed, is disintegrating apace and nothing is able to take its place yet. The various sects have no attractive power, and they have never demonstrated this so conclusively as this past year. The various Left periodicals, groups, or what-have-you, lack either the know-how, or substantial enough acceptance to be able to step forward as the new leading center to bring order out of the chaos and purposefulness out of the disorientation. Hence, the indescribable confusion and babel of voices. Everything is up for grabs. For a period of time, discussion, clarification, formulation of socialist premises, and a sorting out of people will remain on the of the day – and all attempts to rush organization are still premature and prove stillborn.

Out of the discussion and churning will come sooner or later a new intellectual center that will enjoy the authority to enable it to take the lead. It will not about through organizational hocus-pocus. Such a center will only be created – and the year’s experiences bear out this out – through a general acceptance of a program on the matters that count today. The formulation and acceptance of a program is not a matter of reeling off six or eight planks on civil liberties, integration or shorter hours of work, or by utopian attempts to fuse quarreling sects.

We face a big job of intellectual labor, of re-orientation, of broad acceptance of a new world outlook and set of tactics, of the creation of a new morale. It will take place only when there is an ideological breakthrough, and when there is a consensus of outlook established on the part of significant numbers of American radicals, dissenters, free-thinkers. That is what we have to work for. That is how the new American Left will come into being. The American Socialist – herald of the New Left – has to rededicate itself to this effort.

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