A Slice of Socialist History
— Frank Fried and Lester Rodney
[THE FOLLOWING CORRESPONDENCE sheds light on a lesser-known period in U.S. socialist history during the 1950s. Frank Fried was a member of the Socialist Union, led by Bert Cochran, following the “Cochran Faction” expulsion from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1953. He wrote this letter in response to a query from Hal Smith, a student engaged in research in the history of the Trotskyist movement. The subsequent comment by Lester Rodney, the longtime journalist who waged a long campaign in the 1930s and ’40s to break the “color line” in Major League Baseball, offers further perspective on the politics of the Communist Party in the period. Both are retired and living in California.]
DEAR HAL,This is an edited version of the two interviews I gave, in an effort to provide clarity where my thoughts were jumbled and to add preciseness relative to the references of my relationships with certain people. To start, I was a close friend of Harry Braverman from the time I was in Pittsburgh in 1948 until the time of his death. My relationship with [Bert] Cochran started in the American Socialist period and continued until his death. [American Socialist was the highly-regarded publication of the Socialist Union —ed.]
I would not represent myself as a leader in the SWP. However, I did play a significant role in the Socialist Union in the Chicago area and the work we did there influenced other areas of the country as to what was possible. The main goal of the Socialist Union was to get a hearing for socialist ideas for mainstream America and its allies. We broke out of our self-imposed isolation by breaking with the form but not the essence of Trotskyism.
Trotskyism was not a special form of Marxism but represented the struggle against the bureaucratic caste in the Soviet Union and the slavish dependence of socialists outside the Soviet Union in imitating the form but not the essence of the Russian Revolution. It represented the continuity of socialism in a certain historical context.
Its application in America could best be described as the central role of the working class in leading the struggles for social reform and ultimately the struggle for socialism, and the importance of democratic norms for the success of the project in both economic and moral terms. It seems to me that this is as good of a starting point as any for the revival of the socialist movement in America.
The American expression of the politics of the Russian Revolution was expressed in the split of the Socialist Party (SP) in 1917. My sympathies were naturally with the left wing which was struggling with the ossified party bureaucracy. In retrospect my views on the early American scene and my hopes for what should have developed, but didn’t, is best expressed in Louis Boudin’s comments on leaving the split convention of the SP in 1917.
He was asked by a reporter if he was joining the new party that was being formed in revolt against the treachery of the leadership of the SP. Because I don’t have the exact quote at hand I am paraphrasing what he said but I am not doing a disservice to his views. He said, “I did not leave a party of crooks to join one of lunatics.”
To do justice to this view, he did not mean that the SP were crooks in the social sense but rather in the political sense. Likewise, the leadership of the Communist Party were not insane but were out of touch with reality. The comments of Boudin epitomized the tragedy of American Socialism for at least four decades if not more.
I joined the socialist movement 61 years ago. Notwithstanding the above, it has been 88 years since the Russian Revolution. I still regard that event as the most liberating experience for humankind in world history. The revolutionary experiences of the masses in the first three years of the Russian Revolution made unparalleled advances in the rights of people to take complete control of their own lives, including the emancipation of women, full rights for gays and lesbians, and the extension of democratic rights to all national groups in the Soviet Union and people of color everywhere in the world.
The American Socialist magazine was successful in getting a broader hearing for socialist ideas to the radical American public. By the second or third issue people like Issac Deutcher, Harvey O’Conner, and others were writing and speaking for us.
Within three years, we had contributing editors like Kermet Eby, the former educational director of the CIO, and William Appleman Williams, the foremost historian on American imperialism in the postwar period. We’d also published a book on the labor movement with the editors of Monthly Review.
In spite of our best efforts and other like-minded radicals, no new socialist movement was forthcoming. The magazine continued for five years and died in 1959 when its leadership had failed to connect with currents on the American political scene.
Some time later the New Left, stimulated by the Cuban Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement came to be. It is my belief that the possibility existed for the magazine to reorganize and be successful if we could have developed the capacity to involve the leaders of those movements by giving them a leadership role relative to the content and direction of the magazine.
In regards to relations with other groups on the left, particularly the Communist Party: Their leadership was antagonistic. Of other existing grouplets, none were formal, but there was an informal network of people who wanted to resist the witchhunt and Cold War mentality in Washington, and its expression in the labor movement with the isolation of militants and continuation of a collaborationist ideology with the employer.
The majority of militants who left the Communist Party were thoroughly demoralized and also past the age where people were willing to make a new start. Revolutions and revolutionary parties are made by young people. There is a saying in religion and politics that the seeds of the church are from the blood of the martyrs. In the case of the people who came from the Communist Party the blood was tainted by the virus of Stalinism; and this combined with their age and the isolation of all radicals from the American labor movement led to the general collapse of the postwar radical movement.
The American Socialist group took the dominant group of trade unionists in the Socialist Workers Party. This was our base and gave us credibility in the beginning. It made it possible for us to function because we had had real connections to the mass movement. With the reputations of people like John Anderson, Erwin Baur, Genora Johnson Dollinger and Ernie Mazey we had credibility beyond our numbers.
I was chairman of the American Socialist Club in Chicago and a maintenance welder at US Steel. I came into the organized labor movement in the late ’40s where the militancy of the masses had ebbed and the witch hunt was in full swing. But the credibility of the aforementioned militants, who played leading roles in the great events of the ’30s, gave me and our views a certain authority.
In regards to certain specific queries, first, my estimate of James Cannon [James P. Cannon was the central leader of the SWP from its founding in 1938 until the 1960s – ed.]: I believe I shook hands with him once. Over the years my views have evolved and I regard him very positively as a historic figure in the history of American Socialism. Unfortunately, he was permanently scarred by the experience of the Russian Revolution as (U.S. Trotskyism) mechanically attempted to apply the experiences and traditions of the Bolshevik Party in Russia to the American scene.
As one of the original organizers and leaders of the communist movement in America and the only member of the top leadership who broke with the Comintern to fight for Trotsky’s ideas, he had tremendous credibility in the Socialist Workers Party and in my opinion, occasionally he abused it.
After 1946, when he authored the thesis “The Coming American Revolution,” Cannon turned the party in a direction that was contrary to everything that was happening to the American economy and the culture of the country. Instead of 10,000 new workers joining the party, the working class branches in industrial centers that did not have a cosmopolitan edge were collapsing. However, I think history will regard him as an honest and courageous revolutionary leader.
Second, my estimate of the SWP current status: The peculiar evolution of the SWP culminating with the Barnes group is something of which I have no personal or general knowledge, and its history will have to be written by someone who experienced it. The SWP played a major role in the antiwar movement and generally speaking they were more right than wrong, but their inflexible attitude allowed them to be marginalized time and time again because they did not know the difference between principle and a tactic.
As to what happened to me and how I related to the 1960s and later, that will have to take another letter and this one took long enough. —Frank Fried
July 29, 2005
I read your piece with great interest. As you might imagine, I can’t go into facets of the SWP, except to say that people like me are honestly penitent for our overweening arrogance (and ignorance) toward other socialists.
It is certainly well put and valuable to put the Socialist Union's aim as breaking with the form by not the content of Trotskyism (and pointing out that the sin of the CP was imitating the form but not the essence of the revolution.) That of course was the undoing of the CP, along with defensive self-inflicted blinders on what was really going on in the USSR after the early years. Your phrasing of it is very perceptive.
The CP I joined and knew also believed in “the central role of the working class in leading the struggle for social reform and ultimately the struggle for socialism,” if less so the importance of democratic norms. Of course that has to be a starting point for any revival of the socialist movement in America.
The first three years was all you say it was, which has tended to fade from the evaluations of the USSR. I would add, and you would have some differences with this, that even as late as the early ’70s when we toured the USSR, there were still many broad positive facets of socialism in evidence, tantalizing as to what might have been without the Stalinist distortion, and at odds with many broadside descriptions of what it was like.
Your categorization of those who left the CP after the revelations as being demoralized and too old is historically reasonable. Burned out. BUT many, if not most, of those who left in various ways contributed to socially useful things. One example is Johnny Gates at the ILGWU, but “exes” [ex-CPers] can still be found in the peace and generally progressive movements. Yes, we who left the CP indeed had “our blood tainted” by the virus of Stalinism, but we did vigorously denounce that virus too late, it had poisoned the very well of American socialism for generations.
I find it hard to agree that Cannon and others who formed the party “ignored the liberating aspects of the revolution.” It might be fair to say that they didn't place them at the very center of their program, but “ignored” is much too broad a brush.
That all said, I liked and empathized with most of what you say, and incidentally I think not knowing the difference between principle and a tactic was a major problem for more than the SWP.
Thank you for letting me see your well-reasoned letter and thought process, and sorry I am not familiar enough with some of the history you go into to comment. All the best, and hope to see a little more of you guys in whatever time is left for me.
ATC 121, March-April 2006