just a question

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Aug 31 18:08:21 MDT 1999

>After their expulsion what happened to this tendency? Did it form a new
>party? Did its work grow stronger in the unions? Or did it fade away as an
>independent grouping? This speaks a great deal to the quality and
>of the leadership group.
>B. Hurst

Perhaps you joined the list after I posted this, but in my estimation the
role of the "Cochranites" in the American left following the split from the
SWP was major:

I want to elaborate a bit on Sol Dollinger's posts, since their subject
matter far transcends their importance in American Trotskyist history, as
important as that is. I would argue that the so-called Cochranites were not
only the very first to recognize the new realities of American politics in
conditions of post-WWII affluence, but also the first to put forward an
alternative to the kind of sectarianism that had not only characterized the
American Trotskyist movement, but all such parties that had been forged in
the loony crucible of Zinoviev's 1924 "Bolshevization" Comintern.

I first learned of the Cochranites not long after I had joined the SWP,
back in 1967. As one of a few dozen new recruits to the NYC branch, the
leadership had decided to put us through a special intensive training
program where veteran party leaders would essentially present party history
as a series of brilliant strategic successes in the external mass movement,
while accompanied by ruthless but necessary disciplinary measures against
petty-bourgeois oppositions in the party. As the son of a fruit store
owner, I was anxious to get purified through these classes since carrying
around the stigmata of the petty-bourgeoisie would be too much to bear in
such august proletarian environs. I had never met a real factory worker in
my life before joining the SWP and stood in awe of men and women now in
their fifties who had actually worked in a steel mill or auto plant. Coming
from farm country, I had never even seen one.

Among them, there was nobody with more impeccable credentials than Frank
Lovell, who had moved to NYC from Detroit that year in order to write about
trade union affairs for the Militant newspaper. Frank, like many SWP
leaders, was not quite what he appeared. Although he had spent decades in
the factories, he was actually a U. Cal/Berkeley graduate with a degree in
philosophy, just like me. Frank gave a class on the Cochranites, who were
the last major split from the party.

As Frank explained it, the Cochranites were mostly factory workers who had
gotten embourgeoisified by the postwar boom. Although they had done yeoman
work in the 1930s, they became bought off by rising wages and the craft
union outlook of the bureaucracy. In addition, they had made an
"unprincipled combination" with Ernest Mandel and Michel Raptis, aka
"Pablo", the European leaders who were convinced that the CP's might shift
to the left under the pressures of the cold war. This was an "unprincipled
combination" because the Cochranites were not really that interested in the
CPUSA. Years later I discovered that this was not quite accurate, but more
about that momentarily.

After becoming a hardened SWP'er ready to vanquish all foes internally and
externally, I was dispatched up to Boston to help organize the faction
fight against Larry Trainor, a 1930s veteran who had developed differences
with the party over what was described a "detour" from the trade unions
into the student movement. Trainor was uncomfortable with the student
milieu and thought that new recruits should not only go through classes
like I did, but also get factory jobs as a prophylactic against
petty-bourgeois ideological deviations.

Peter Camejo, who was the leader of the faction opposed to Larry, assigned
me to do a report on the Cochranites which when finally presented went over
with a bang. I explained that there is no way to inoculate people against
petty-bourgeois deviations, since they are everywhere in society. Look at
the Cochranites, I argued. Nobody was more blue-collar than them, but they
too had sold out. Mind you, this without having ever read a single article
written by Bert Cochran or any of his co-thinkers.

After I left the SWP, I began exploring alternatives to sectarianism. While
initially impressed with the Sandinista movement's ability to translate
Marxist ideas into the national idiom, I eventually discovered that similar
efforts had first taken shape in the United States in the 1950s. The most
tangible results were the weekly newspaper The National Guardian and the
Monthly Review. Both of these publications were attempts to develop a
Marxism that embodied American traditions and which would avoid the sterile
sectarianism that had marked both the Stalinist and Trotskyist left. In the
course of getting to know the Monthly Review in depth, I would discover
that one of the central Cochranite figures, Harry Braverman, was key to its
initial success.

The January 1999 Monthly Review is devoted to Harry, with a superb article
by our own Michael Yates titled "Braverman and the Class Struggle" which is
available on their website (http://www.igc.org/MonthlyReview). The article,
however, that is most germane to our discussion is by Bryan Palmer. Titled
"Before Braverman: Harry Frankel and the American Workers' Movement", it
provides details about Frankel/Braverman's career in the SWP, his fight
with Cannon and his political work following his expulsion.  Palmer writes:

"In the aftermath of the Cochran-Frankel expulsion, Harry Frankel lived on
for a time. Cochran and Frankel founded the Socialist Union of America, and
their first propaganda organ The Educator, a mimeographed sheet whose title
was borrowed from the 1930s publication of the Mechanics Educational
Society of America, a forerunner of the UAW with which Cochran had worked
in his early auto organizing days. Frankel penned an initial article on
sectarianism and splinter groups in the Trotskyist milieu, but within a
year Frankel as a figure in the American workers' movement had passed from
the scene.

"Harry Braverman reemerged as the co-editor, with Cochran, of the American
Socialist, and leading spokesman of what purported to be a new politics of
socialist clarity, in which the cancer of sectarianism would be excised
from the left. Braverman and Cochran proposed to spread socialist
propaganda that was comprehensible and liberated from jargon and ossified
orthodoxies, strengthening ties to the union and progressive movements the
better to lay the foundations for the future birth of a socialist Marxist
party. In a 1954 speech, 'Setting a New Course,' Braverman pilloried the
SWP as an isolated sect, 'trapped in fulfilling the obligatory moral action
undertaken as a push-button response to an immutable law.' Trotskyist
theory, he suggested, had died in 1940, failing to move beyond its hardened
formulae. Like all sectarians, Braverman argued, the SWP did not want to
learn from the masses, merging with the struggles and experiences of the
working class, but to swallow them."

Phil Ferguson commented on the rather modest--to the point of
disappearance--credentials of Jack Barnes in the mass movement. What is
important to understand is that the Cochranites really represented the
activist core of the SWP. Take, for example, Genora Johnson herself. There
is little doubt that she was among the most skilled mass leaders in the
American trade union movement of the 1930s. Even Frank Lovell paid glowing
tribute to her in his talk. For the essentials on her career, I recommend
the entry in the latest edition of Paul Buhle's Encyclopedia of the
American Left, written by Sol himself:

"Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan (where her mother, Lora Aibro, had gone to
give birth), but raised in Flint, Genora Johnson (1913-1995) became a
charter member of the newly organized Flint Socialist Party in 1931. She
would go on to play a pivotal role in the sit-down strike of 1937 at
General Motors Plant No. 4, an event that led to the signing of the first
union contract by General Motors and was a turning point in the
organization of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). Her first husband,
Kermit Johnson, was the only member of the city-wide strike committee who
worked at that plant, and his proposal that it be made the focus of the
strike encountered opposition from Walter Reuther and other members of the
Socialist Party; Genora appealed to Norman Thomas for support, and her
unyielding insistence was a primary factor in the strategy's ultimately
being accepted. Then, during the strike, she organized the thousand-member
strong Woman's Auxiliary, out of which emerged a paramilitary Women's
Emergency Brigade of four hundred. Arming itself with clubs to defend the
strikers, it played a crucial role in their eventual victory. (The
Auxiliary was the subject of the documentary With Babies and Banners, an
Academy Award nominee in 1978.)

"In 1938-1939, Genora Johnson organized the first unemployed union to be
affiliated with the UAW and served as its secretary. To avoid blacklisting
by General Motors, she moved to Detroit with her second husband, Sol
Dollinger, and worked at Briggs. She was elected vice-chair of the Shop
Stewards Body and sat on the committee set up in 1945 to investigate
physical beatings of trade unionists. She soon became the victim of a
lead-pipe attack while asleep in bed. Six years later the Kefauver
Committee determined that the Briggs beating and the shotgun attacks on
Walter and Victor Reuther were instigated by an alliance of several major
Detroit auto executives and the Detroit Mafia.

"Johnson joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1938 and was a founding
member of the American Socialist Union in 1953. From 1960 to 1966 she was
an officer in the Michigan Civil Liberties Union, and she was one of the
first presidents of Women for Peace, an anti-Vietnam War organization.
While in that office she persuaded a number of Detroit union leaders to
come out publicly against the war."

People like Genora Dollinger and Harry Braverman understood that a genuine
mass revolutionary party would have to emerge out of the mass movement
itself. The clash between Cannon and the Cochranites was in many ways
similar to the one that took place between Barnes, a latter-day Cannon with
none of the redeeming features, and Peter Camejo. Under the impact of the
Nicaraguan revolution, Camejo became convinced that a much broader
organizational framework was necessary to move American socialism forward.
When he proposed to the SWP leadership that they run a joint campaign with
other left forces against Mayor Koch, they became unglued. This was heresy
that eventually led to his expulsion.

The Cochranites ran into the same kinds of obstacles, as Sol has pointed
out. When a modest proposal was made to remove the little icon of Trotsky
from the masthead of the Militant, we can assume this was viewed as
liquidating the party into the Stalinist swamp. In reality, Bert was simply
thinking through the problems of trying to reach American workers in their
own vernacular and symbols.

In some ways the struggle to build a non-sectarian revolutionary movement
is more favorable than ever. The success of this mailing list is a
vindication of that. Marxists simply do not want to be bothered with tiny,
self-declared vanguards who repeat party lines in a mechanical fashion. As
gloomy as our situation can seem sometimes, with the collapse of the Soviet
Union and the seeming triumph of imperialism, we should remind ourselves
that the greatest subversive of all is the capitalist system. For a
reminder of how tenuous the stability of the capitalist system is, I
recommend the latest Monthly Review which is a special issue on "Capitalism
at the End of the Millennium".

While I have quarreled often and vociferously with Doug Henwood in the
recent past, his article is especially valuable in light of the discussions
held here recently over "Camejo's Long Wave." Doug's article "Booming,
Borrowing, and Consuming: the US Economy in 1999" has some eye-opening
statistics on the problematic nature of our "prosperity". Drawing from the
National Bureau for Economic Research, Doug points out that from the first
quarter of 1991 to the first quarter of 1999, average annual real growth
was 3.2%. From fourth quarter of 1949 to the second quarter of 1953, it was
7.5%. Wage growth for the 1990s was 0.2% annually, for the 1949-53 period,
it was 3.1%. Meanwhile, the USA seems to be the only country in the world
enjoying any kind of "prosperity" at all, as opposed to Japan, for example,
which is seeing a record number of suicides over economic failure.

It is difficult to figure out what will happen next, least of all on the
economic front. The one thing that we do have control over, and an ability
to make predictions about, is how to build a revolutionary movement. I have
enormous confidence in the ability of Marxism worldwide to make enormous
strides forward, since so many of the mistakes of the past seem generally
understood by now. As long as we can combine equal amounts of modesty and
audacity, any goal including revolution seems reachable.

Louis Proyect

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