Lunch with Cynthia Cochran
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Sep 8 20:29:03 MDT 1999
I had lunch yesterday with Cynthia Cochran, the widow of Bert Cochran who
has been discussed here in recent days. I am glad that list member Sol
Dollinger, a "Cochranite" himself, made the initial contacts since Cynthia
is an extremely charming and intelligent woman who has a lot of interesting
things to say about her work with Bert and on the problems of building
Marxist parties in general.
Cynthia has a sharp wit and the ability not only to recall dramatic
incidents in her political life from decades ago, but to narrate them like
an experienced raconteur. I didn't bring a tape recorder with me, but her
anecdotes and observations remain fresh with me over 36 hours later. I want
to share some of them with you.
Cynthia comes from Buffalo where rebellion apparently ran in her family.
Her father was a Presbyterian minister whose favorite "issue" was fighting
prohibition. He couldn't stand the idea of the state regulating what people
drink in their homes and was arrested 8 times for protesting dry laws. He
organized something called the Joy Church which involved congregants
sipping wine that he made in his cellar.
Her brother was Vincent Copeland who was number two in the Workers World
Party for many years. I was surprised to learn that he was a promising
actor in the 1930s and threw it all away to join the radical movement. He
had appeared as a leading man on Broadway and Cynthia said that at one
point there were daily calls from famed actress Katherine Cornell about
rehearsals and other theatre business. Vince's daughter, it turns out, is
Deidre Griswold, a central leader of the WWP--about my age now--who I
recall vividly from antiwar conferences in the 1960s as a strikingly
beautiful woman who, like all WWP'ers, made strident speeches about the
need for an "anti-imperialist" movement. All of the Copelands, including
Cynthia, seem to have good looks in their genes.
We didn't spend any time discussing Vince's ideological place in American
Trotskyism, but more about the way in which a sectarian approach to
politics can get in the way of human relationships. After Vince broke away
from the SWP and began pouring his energy into his brand-new left-wing
group, he seemed to have little time for his kid sister. Vince's attitude,
she said, is that if somebody wasn't "recruitable", they weren't worth
"wasting time" on, even apparently if it is your own sister. When Cynthia
ran into Vince on a 5th Avenue bus in the 1960s after having lost contact
for some years, he was pleasant to her but did not make much of an effort
to stay in touch. He only came back into her life when he was stricken with
cancer. Cynthia was working as a nurse in a large NYC hospital and one day
a co-worker informed her that a guy named Vincent Copeland was in the room
down the hall. His illness reunited them and she looked after him until his
Cynthia was like many of the "Cochranite" women, a real trade unionist. She
always had factory jobs until McCarthyism made that impossible. She
remembers her last job in a San Pedro, California aircraft plant when the
FBI came to get her, which was something she was anticipating would happen
sooner or later. She was in the back of an enormous building up on a plane
riveting away. The FBI told her to get down and come with her. As she
walked out of the plant with the two enormous goons on either side of her,
the workers watched her walking out. She said that they downed their tools
as she made her way past them one after another, until the entire building
When Cynthia met Bert, she had no idea that he was one of her idols, the
famed E. Frank who wrote probing articles on the world political situation
for the Trotskyist magazine New International. A few days after they were
married, he revealed to her that he was actually E. Frank (not to be
confused with Pierre Frank, the French Trotskyist leader). Bert, it turns
out, was a Jew born in Warsaw who took a non-Jewish name so that
anti-semitism wouldn't get in the way of his union organizing activities.
He always got a chuckle out of his Irish last name, when there was nothing
Irish about him.
As somebody whose entire time in the Trotskyist movement overlapped with
its engagement with 1960s and 70s feminism, Cynthia's reflections on the
role of women in the party in the 30s through the 50s was an eye-opener.
She said that party leader Myra Tanner Weiss, who she worked closely with,
used to get into contentious battles with male party leaders and was not
above accusing them of treating her "like a woman". Her relationship with
Bert seems to speak to the complex relationship that might not be possible
nowadays between male and female revolutionaries today. After Bert was
expelled from the SWP in the 1950s at about the age of 40, he had to start
a whole new career. The only thing that seemed feasible was to become a
writer, which is really what he was trained to do. The only way he could
make headway at this was through the income Cynthia was making in her
regular job as a medical technician. Since they had decided not to have
children, Bert's books would in effect be their babies.
(She also stated that she never understood why Trotsky had decided to bring
children into the world, since they obviously would get in the way of being
a fully developed revolutionary. These questions ironically remained at the
heart of SWP party life all through the feminist epoch, even after the
initial fanfare surrounding the new freedom of women from "bourgeois"
child-rearing obligations. After the "turn", it was not unusual to see many
female comrades recently immersed in working-class life making the decision
to have children, like regular working people do. Later on, this act was
frowned upon and one woman was expelled from the group for nursing an
infant at a branch meeting, an act of "indiscipline".)
After Bert was expelled from the SWP, he and Cynthia threw themselves into
producing a magazine called The American Socialist, which was published
until 1960. It is without a doubt one of the most important socialist
publications in the entire 20th century, despite its relative short
life-span. I had never actually seen a copy of it before, but browsed
through it while Cynthia was preparing Chicken Cacciatori in the kitchen.
A 1959 issue revealed that William Appleman Williams and Harvey O'Connor
were on the editorial board. Williams, who eventually became a professor at
U. of Wisconsin in Madison, was the father of "revisionist" historiography.
These historians had an enormous influence on the new left as they
re-evaluated such questions as the decision to use the A-Bomb against
Japan. O'Connor, born in 1897, was from the older generation and wrote
hard-hitting books on American plutocracy, including the 1955 classic
"Empire of Oil". What came as a complete surprise was the inclusion in that
issue of an article by Ralph Nader, who was writing about recent
developments in the Soviet Union. An article by Bert on the new student
movement clearly anticipated exactly what would happen in a few years.
There was also a long article by Cochranite leader and editorial board
member Harry Braverman on the modern workplace. A cursory glance revealed
that it contained the seeds of the ideas that would go into the great
classic "Labor and Monopoly Capital".
When I told Cynthia how impressive the magazine was, she shrugged her
shoulders and questioned whether it was worth all the trouble she and Bert
put into it, since it wasn't around that long and lots of people seemed to
be ready to ignore it. I told her that I knew of at least one important
person whose political beliefs were shaped by the magazine, a leader of
SNCC and eventually the labor movement, who held it in the highest regard.
Many scholars have written about the importance of the Shachtmanites in the
formation of the new left of the 1960s, especially Maurice Isserman in "If
I had a Hammer". It is high time that attention was paid to the work of
Bert and Cynthia Cochran, Sol Dollinger and others in this group who first
raised ideas about a non-sectarian and non-dogmatic revolutionary movement.
Perhaps they were way ahead of their time, but their ideas will certainly
outlast the Marxist-Leninist "mumbo-jumbo" of all the groups running around
When Marxists who have broken with sectarianism get together, there is a
certain frame of reference they share that comes out of that bitter
experience. Although I was not expelled from the SWP, only "pushed out", I
had a good idea of the kind of pain that Cynthia must have experienced when
her friends and comrades first expelled her and then ostracised her. She
remembers the night when she and Bert were in a studio apartment in Detroit
when they received a visit from Farrell Dobbs, James P. Cannon's
lieutenant. She overheard Farrell tell Bert that Cannon said, "Bert had to
go. That's all there was to it." Those words were chilling to her and to me
as she repeated them.
I told her that the "Marxist-Leninist" obsession with expulsion had very
little to do with the way Lenin's party functioned. In its entire history,
the Bolsheviks only expelled one person, the ultraleft nut Bogdanov who had
begun to reject Marxism wholesale. Even during the 1917 revolution, when
Kamenev, Zinoviev and others broke discipline and spoke publicly against
the overthrow of Kerensky, they were not even suspended, let alone
expelled. Cynthia's take on this question was most interesting. She said
that small sectarian groups lacking the power to overthrow the real class
enemy tend to use whatever power they have against enemies in the party.
My time spent with Cynthia made me reflect on what a loss it was for the
SWP to expel these gifted people. Not only were they correct on the
programmatic questions, they were the kinds of real human beings that
revolutionary parties need. Not just leaders of the trade union movement
and deep thinkers on theoretical issues confronting the working class, but
they had the warmth and charisma that serve as poles of attraction for
people coming around revolutionary politics. Cynthia's attitude toward the
party that expelled her and Bert was that if they didn't have the common
sense to adopt their proposals, then they deserved what they got. I suppose
in the long run, the turn against "Cochranism", which was really a turn
away from objective reality, was what got American Trotskyism where it is,
a hollow shell of a party with an aging membership lacking influence in the
The ideas of the Cochranites will live on. They will live on in Sol
Dollinger's website (http://home.inreach.com/soldoll/). They might live on
if an anthology based on "The American Socialist" gets published
eventually, with a long sympathetic introduction on Bert that he deserves.
I'll write the damned thing myself, if necessary. As Gramsci has said, the
struggle for socialism is a long, protracted trench warfare sort of
struggle. In this fight, the kinds of weapons we need are embodied in the
lives and writings of the Cochranites.
More information about the Marxism