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Tim Wohlforth

Periodicals in Review

(Winter 1960)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.1, Winter 1960, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

End of American Socialist

With its December issue, the American Socialist has called it quits after six years of publication. In doing so it has gone the way of such publications as Labor Action, Challenge and New International of the Social Democratic sphere. (Though it may be premature to report the death of Anvil, the student journal of the Shachtman group, we can report it as “missing in action,” for it hasn’t been published for a year now.)

The immediate causes of the demise of these publications are quite different. When looked at in a broader political perspective, however, a pattern emerges. The decision to abandon the American Socialist was not motivated by strictly financial pressures, its editors tell us. “We have been financially embarrassed several times before in our six-year career and have managed somehow or other to raise the necessary money,” they state. It is rather that “it has been harder and harder to get the kind of support that a Left publication must have if it is to be a vital force.”

The statement of the editors in the December issue gives the impression that they have given up because they feel that their efforts over the last six years have not produced the type of political movement they sought to create. In a certain sense this is the very motivation that led to the downfall of Labor Action and the New International and, a little later on, YPSL Challenge. After seventeen years of work to build a political movement, Max Shachtman and his followers decided that it was no longer worth the effort and there was no longer any justification for maintaining an independent press and organization. They therefore entered the Socialist party-Social Democratic Federation.

The momentary result of their entry was a spurt of activity in the SP-SDF’s youth organization, the Young People’s Socialist League, which produced Challenge. As this activity subsided, the YPSL was unable to continue its publication. The membership did not feel concerned enough about its continuation to make the financial sacrifices necessary to sustain it.

The American Socialist was published by a group led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman which split from the Socialist Workers party (just as the Shachtman group had done earlier) and attempted to create some sort of alternative movement to a revolutionary socialist party. Cochran and Braverman apparently thought they could do this by completely ignoring basic programmatic questions; they turned their backs on any serious attempt to analyze world developments and come to definit political conclusions.

They strove, with considerable success, to publish a magazine without revealing any definite political line. The ultimate effect of this was failure to attract people who were searching for a political program and the demoralization of their original supporters who were in a revolutionary socialist movement to start with, were led into a break with it and then found themselves dangling in mid air. Under these conditions the failure of the magazine venture became inevitable.

It is difficult enough to sustain a magazine without a clearly defined political outlook, but it is downright impossible to build a socialist movement without one. This is one of the main lessons of the experience of American Socialist. Shachtman’s experiment was but another variant. Rather than attempt to build a movement without a program as Cochran did, Shachtman conceived of the scheme of building a movement with someone else’s program – that of the State Department socialists. As always happens in such cases, the device becomes the reality; the program that is being cleverly utilized turns out to be utilizing the manipulator: confusion and demoralization ensues.

There is one positive achievement of the six-year history of the American Socialist which is important despite the failure of the publication. It initiated and maintained a high technical standard of radical journalism which surpassed any of its contemporaries. It was always well edited, its illustrations among the best to be found in any publication and its general appearance quite attractive. We can do well to learn from this positive feature of Cochran and Braverman’s magazine venture as well as from their political mistakes.

The New Left in England

The turmoil following the Khrushchev revelations and the Hungarian Revolution produced in England several new publications and political organizations. Among the most stimulating were the New Reasoner, published by E.P. Thompson, and Universities and Left Review, published by students, some formerly with the Communist party and some from the left wing of the Labor party.

These two publications have recently merged to form the New Left Review.

Among the supporters of this new publication can be found many young intellectuals new to politics who are repelled by the opportunism of the official Labor party leadership and the blind apologetics for the Kremlin of the British Communist party. These young people have formed various loosely related Left Clubs and Left coffee houses in the university areas engaging in discussions and – in the case of anti-nuclear tests campaign – some action.

The ideology of at least one section of the intellectual leadership of the group (it seems to be the predominant section) is clearly expressed by E.P. Thompson in his article, The New Left, in the last issue of the New Reasoner (Summer 1959). Thompson characterizes modern Britain in an impressionistic but at the same time occasionally perceptive way. Using terminology reminiscent of our C. Wright Mills, he speaks of the Great Apathy perpetrated by the “Establishment” (which he compares to the American Power Elite and the Soviet bureaucracy). The Establishment is divided into three parts: the Establishment of Power; the Establishment of Orthodoxy; and the Establishment of Institutions.

A large part of Thompson’s article is devoted, not to a critique of modern capitalism, but rather to a critique of the “Old Left.” He considers the British Trotskyists, organized in the Socialist Educational League and conducting a vigorous left-wing struggle within the unions and the Labor party, to be the latest example of the Old Left.

Thompson is searching for an ideological home somewhere between revolutionary socialism and Stalinism and Social Democracy. Apparently he wants this new ideological home to allow him to dissent from right-wing socialism and thus express his alienation from the Establishment, including the established trade union and Labor party bureaucracy. At the same time, however, this new ideology must not compel him to conduct any real struggle against this Establishment or exert efforts to build an organization for the conduct of such a struggle. This leads him to a sort of academic revolutionism which rejects the actual struggle now transpiring as “fervent parasitic factionalism”; a Marxist critique of the capitalist system and the analysis of the ebbs and flows of the class struggle he regards as “economism”; and, finally, the building of a revolutionary party he dismisses as “vanguardism.”

What Thompson omits is as indicative of his views as what he says. He writes a lengthy article on the perspective for the Left with almost no mention of the working class. He does not relate the development of the conscious socialist movement to the struggles of the working class in England.

Intellectuals can play a very important role in helping to bring socialist consciousness to the working class.

Lenin and all the Marxist leaders have helped us understand this. However, the intellectual isolated from the working class and incapable of submitting to the discipline of the working class movement, is powerless. It is the task of the socialist movement to forge the link between the intellectual and the advanced elements in the working class. Thompson, it appears, has turned his back on this task.

This kind of radicalism has considerable appeal to that stratum of intellectuals in England as well as the United States who wish to be radical but who at the same time do not want this radicalism to be carried to the point that it interferes or disrupts their “peaceful coexistence” with the rest of the middle class (especially the academic section thereof). Similar views to Thompson’s are expressed in this country in such otherwise politically divergent publications as Dissent (for right-wing armchair socialists); American Socialist (for ex-Trotskyist armchair socialists); and Monthly Review (for friends of the Soviet Union armchair socialists).

It is doubtful whether such an ideology of sterility and inaction can have any lasting attraction for its younger supporters.

Another British publication, Labor Review, carries in its November, 1959 issue a fine article by Gerry Healy, secretary of the Socialist Labor League, which goes into the question of the New Left more deeply than we can here.

National Guardian Disarmed

The banner headline in the Oct. 12, 1959 issue of the National Guardian queries: Can We Disarm and Convert to Peace Without a Crash? In this and a number of subsequent issues the Guardian seems to be conducting a veritable campaign aimed at convincing the capitalists that they can disarm without endangering their system.

The capitalists do not seem too ready to accept this view and continue in practice – no matter how much they state the opposite in their propaganda – to act on the belief that they cannot afford to disarm. On this particular question we cannot help feeling that the capitalists understand their system better than some of their “progressive” critics.

Total disarmament of the US would not only rock an economy which was able to pull out of depression only on the basis of World War II and the cold war which followed, but would also make it impossible for the capitalists to police the world to preserve and extend their markets and raw materials sources.

We socialists, rather than attempting to convince the capitalists to act contrary to their nature, have another and more practical solution: let’s get rid of capitalism! It is too bad that the Guardian editorial staff, who are as devoted to socialism as we are, have allowed their vain striving for permanent peace between capitalism and the non capitalist bloc to lead them into such a blind alley. The net effect of their campaign is not to disarm the capitalists but rather to disarm themselves.

Random Notes

Recent issues of the Monthly Review have contained some interesting discussion on the nature of Marxism first initiated by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in the October and November issues. Joseph Starobin’s comments show that today he is as enthusiastically joining in the “Great American Celebration” as he earlier eulogized the “infallible leader,” Stalin. Comments of Stanley Moore and Maurice Dobb are more in line with the subject, Marxism ... Considerable controversy has surrounded the Nation’s special issue, The Shame of New York and the strange episode following its publication in which the two authors, a reporter-writer team of Fred Cook and Gene Gleason, were fired from their jobs on the World Telegram for publicly charging New York city officials with attempting to silence them with bribery. Gleason “confessed,” after being grilled for a whole day in the District Attorney’s office, that his charge was false. The Militant, in a Dec. 14 editorial, associated itself with the National Guardian in the view “that Fred Cook and the Nation are the victims of a dirty move to discredit their indictment of New York rackets, politics and big business.” “The indictment becomes all the more pertinent,” the Militant says, and calls on its readers to obtain the special issue of the Nation (333 Sixth Ave., New York 14. Ten copies are $4 and 50 copies are $7.50; a single copy is fifty cents). The Nation has become one liberal voice that performs the basic duty of exposing the ugly sores of capitalist society. This is in the best “muckraking” tradition of American liberalism and for our part we prefer it to the liberalism of the realpolitikers that infest the Democratic party ... A lot of good material on the labor movement can be found in Dissent’s Fall 1959 issue . . . The September and October issues of Liberation carry several articles discussing the question, Should Negroes React to Violence? in defending themselves ... Science and Society, which over the years adhered rather closely to the official Communist party line, and which seemed untouched by the regroupment crisis, has shown signs of a wee bit of life. The Spring 1959 issue contained an article by Hans Freistadt which suggests in passing that greater freedom of thought for Soviet scientists would help them in their pursuits. It has also printed articles by Paul Mattick and Albert Blumberg, the former certainly not in the CP orbit and the latter formerly associated with John Gates who has left the CP ... The Atlantic Monthly has devoted its December issue to articles on China, another sign of the deep curiosity Americans have about developments in that country. A revolution cannot be hidden from the world – not even by a mountain of slander. The monumental scope of the slander itself testifies to the significance of the event.

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