The Cochranite legacy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Oct 2 06:52:08 MDT 2000

[This is a paper that was presented to a conference on American Trotskyism
this weekend.]

According to Al Hansen, who wrote the preface to "Speeches to the Party", a
mostly obscure collection of James P. Cannon's anti-Cochranite rants from
the late 1940s and early 1950s:

". . . Sol and Genora [Dollinger] expressed the following views. The party
should not be trying to build branches, running election campaigns, or even
trying to recruit members in this period. The country was facing the
triumph of fascism and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it
because of the conservatism of the workers and our party’s weakness. When
fascism triumphed here, all known Trotskyists would be wiped out as had
happened in Nazi Germany. Therefore the best thing that we could do as
revolutionists was to spend as much time as we had writing down and
printing our ideas, our program, and then hide this printed matter in
attics, basements, etc., for future generations to discover."

So that's the official version of the Cochranites: liquidationists panicked
by McCarthyism. And then you mix this with Cannon's crude sociological
explanation of them as a privileged strata of the working class. These were
UAW Joe Six-Packs tired of the class struggle and anxious to live the good
life paid for by high union wages. When a raw recruit like me first heard
about the Cochranites in a 1969 Frank Lovell lecture, I felt thankful that
the good guys had won, just like they always did in the SWP. In
revolutionary parties, as in politics in general, history is written by the

In early 1970 I took an assignment to go up to Boston to fight against the
Proletarian Orientation Tendency (POT). This workerist grouping around old
timer Larry Trainor, included not only my friend Alan Wald then in
Berkeley, but a number of party members my age. They numbered perhaps 5 to
10 percent of the SWP and YSA. The POT worried that the rapid influx of
middle-class students would create alien class pressures on the proletarian
party. The next thing you know we'd oppose the USSR's invasion of Finland
or something. I was never sure how I fit into all this because my father
had been a truck-driver before he opened up a fruit store. As a computer
programmer, I supposedly belonged to Ernest Mandel's new working class. In
any case, I never lost any sleep over this question.

The POT in Boston couldn't wait for the rest of the party to wake up to the
danger. They had begun to take jobs in hospitals and factories in order to
transform themselves into workers. With its attention fixed on the
factories, the Boston branch lagged behind the rest of the country in
building the mass antiwar movement. Branch organizer Peter Camejo's job was
to destroy the Trainorites politically and reorient the branch toward the
student movement. I was his one of his right-hand men in the faction fight.

As justification for this crackdown, the Cochranite heresy proved useful.
In my remarks to the branch during the 1971 pre-convention discussion, I
said that it was useless to take jobs in factories. After all, it had made
no difference for the Cochranites. Even auto workers were not above selling
out the revolution.

Although the party apparatus was successful in destroying the POT, it
turned around and adopted virtually its entire agenda only 7 years later.
The "turn" toward industry was just another misguided attempt at
colonization, not much more sophisticated than the one mounted by the
Boston SDS Worker-Student Alliance in 1970 that had served as a model for
the Boston branch.

Despite the turn, Peter Camejo remained a 1960s holdout. After spending
time in Nicaragua witnessing a living revolution, he became convinced that
the SWP was on a sectarian dead-end. He not only defended the 1960s
orientation, he believed it necessary to work more closely with
non-Trotskyist groups like the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Basically, he
was trying to work out a Cuban or Central American type orientation for the
United States.

Questioning the "turn" got him thrown out of the party in 1980. That year I
began wondering why the SWP was doing so little to organize protests
against US intervention in Central America. Although I had been out of the
party for two years, I read the Militant from cover to cover each week. If
there was any deep concern with US imperialism's designs in the region, I
couldn't see it. A chance encounter with Ray Markey, who was still in the
party and who always seemed level-headed to me, prompted me to ask what was
wrong the SWP. Had they turned into a workerist sect? He gave me a copy of
Peter Camejo's "Against Sectarianism" which said yes to that question. As I
began reading it, I found myself in agreement with every word.

About 7 years ago J. Plant, who works with the excellent British journal
"Revolutionary History," raised a question on an Internet mailing list that
led me to begin writing about party building questions. He asked people for
their assessment of Trotskyism. I replied that Trotsky's basic ideas on
permanent revolution, fascism, the popular front, etc. remained sound. But
we had to come to terms with the problem that his movement had a tendency
to generate sectarian formations. I said that this was caused by a
misreading of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and announced that I would write
about these problems in some depth. So I wrote about the CP, the
Trotskyists. and newer formations like the Cuban July 26th movement and the
FSLN in Nicaragua. All of it is archived on the Marxism list website, along
with links to material on the Cochranites.

I found myself questioning not only official versions of what it meant to
build Marxist-Leninist parties, but the particular Cannonite version handed
down in the SWP. Part of this re-investigation meant taking a new look at
all of our various renegades. Since I was in a forgiving mood, I began
handing out absolutions to everybody. Oehlerites, Shachtmanites,
Cochranites--it didn't matter. I no longer had any use for reading people
out of the movement. Look where it had led.

At the time I had neither the motivation nor the resources to actually
study what the Cochranites stood for in any great detail, especially since
there was a paucity of documentation available to the general public. All
that changed after Sol Dollinger showed up on a Marxism list I had launched
in May of 1998. Over the past year or so, we have had discussions on the
list about the legacy of the Trotskyist movement that have benefited from
the insights of a living and breathing--and sometimes blunt--Cochranite.
One of the first things we learned from Sol was that the charge of
"privileged" Cochranite factory workers was absurd. He wrote:

"Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell
that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of
the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry.
My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other auto
worker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven
years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora's
father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as
a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a
down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments
of $35."

Keeping in mind that my criticisms of Trotskyism flow from a Cuban or
Sandinista type perspective like Camejo's, I found that Sol's basic
approach coincided with my own. That led me to look into the whole question
of the Cochran legacy. Contrary to Al Hansen, this group did not liquidate
itself in 1954. It made an audacious attempt to start a new Marxist left.
Their organization was called the Socialist Union. Their journal the
American Socialist began that year as well, only to cease publication at
the end of 1959. Edited by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, it is not only
one of the best Marxist journals ever published, it is also a guide to
understanding the kind of revolutionary movement that we need today.

Over the past year or so, I have been scanning in articles from American
Socialist, courtesy of Cynthia Cochran who lives here in NYC and making
them available in electronic archives. Eventually I hope to have this
published as an American Socialist Reader.

To start with, it does not make sense to speak of Cochran or Braverman in
the same terms as CLR James or any other figure around whom disciples
gathered. That being said, there is still a "Cochranite" approach to
politics that revolved around overlapping concerns. Let's take a look at them.

To begin with, the American Socialist rejected the "vanguard" model that
James P. Cannon had promoted. Although the magazine never mentioned Cannon
or the SWP after the first issue, there was no mistake that they were for a
complete break with the sectarian model.

Unlike the Trotskyists, they believed that a genuine regroupment was
necessary on the American left. I want to emphasize the word genuine
because the SWP went through a regroupment period themselves in the late
1950s that can only be characterized as a fishing expedition to gain new
members, particularly disaffected ex-CP'ers. Activists in the Socialist
Union saw their work with other groups as a means to an end. They sought to
build a broad-based socialist movement and not just another sect.

In October 1956 the Socialist Union organized a regroupment meeting in
Chicago that drew 800 people. Besides Bert Cochran, the speakers included
A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Sidney Lens, a writer
and trade union official. Cochran told the audience:

"Practically since its inception, the American Socialist has declared that
a regroupment was necessary on the American scene, that the old movements
had knocked each other out, and what remained of them had either succumbed
to the slough of sectarianism, or had outlived their usefulness as vehicles
of American radicalism. At first we were a lone voice, but today this idea
is accepted by many. Nevertheless, as a result of many private conferences
and conversations that we have been engaged in over these past months, we
are convinced that the regroupment and the setting up of something new will
necessarily involve a more or less protracted process of discussion,
debate, and re-examination of many of the Left's premises and solutions,
before the ground is sufficiently prepared for the next organizational

Not only was the American Socialist immersed in the regroupment process, it
also explained the importance of similar efforts underway in Europe that
they characterized as the unfolding of a "new left". This term, by the way,
is used frequently in the pages of American Socialist to describe not the
sorry mess we ended up with in the 1960s but something more in the way of a
new Marxist left. It is unfortunate that objective circumstances militated
against the Socialist Union's best efforts to make such a new movement

For example, in 1958 the American Socialist covered developments in Great
Britain around the journals New Reasoner, which included E.P. Thompson as
an editor, and Universities and Left Review. They eventually merged and
became New Left Review. Here is Cochran sizing up the New Reasoner:

"The weakness of the New Reasoner appears to be that most of its writers
are still unduly pre-occupied with the world from which they have so
recently broken, as evidenced in the subject matter which claims their
attention, the problems that continue to dominate their thoughts, and the
people to whom they are primarily addressing their writings. Moreover,
trying to continue to rest on the Communist tradition by restoring it to
its original pre-Stalinist pristine purity strikes me as a quixotic
venture. Communism is bound by historical associations of a quarter of a
century that neither god nor man can eradicate. To try to restore Communism
to the meaning that it possessed in 1917 or 1848 is like trying to take
Christianity away from the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches of
today and restore it to the simple virtues of the Biblical Apostles. It is
a subject matter for literary exercises. It has no use as a workable
tradition for the Left in Britain, much less, in the United States."

The American Socialist also sought to ground itself in earlier radical
traditions in the United States, before Bolshevik cloning became mandatory.
This meant taking a fresh look at the Debs legacy. Not only did the
editorial board of American Socialist include octogenarian George H. Shoaf,
who had worked closely with Debs, it also published a special issue on the
Socialist Party in which Cochran drew a contrast between Debs' party and
what had followed it:

"PECULIARLY enough, the Communist movement that followed Debs, and became
the mainstream of American radicalism in the thirties and forties, lost
this trait all over again, and became too much of a Russian movement; not
in the sense that most of its members were of Russian extraction (they were
not), but because their thought was so largely concentrated on Russia.
Their leaders uncritically tried to copy Russian patterns of behavior, and
misconstrued socialist internationalism to mean loss of independence for
one’s own party. A reawakened socialist movement will undoubtedly have to
re-create much of the earlier Debs model in this respect."

The break with the SWP not only involved questions of the appropriateness
of the 'vanguard' party-building model, it also challenged the sort of
'catastrophism' that marked the party's post-WWII outlook. While Cannon
predicted a new depression and working class radicalization, the
Cochranites urged a more cautious and objective view of the American
economy and society. As is obvious today, the Cochranite assessment was far
more accurate.

Cochran's co-editor Harry Braverman focused on the American economy's
strengths and weaknesses. In article after article, he examined the nature
of the post-WWII prosperity. While first showing residual influences of the
kind of 'catastrophism' found in the post-WWII SWP, he eventually found
himself coming to terms with what would turn out to be the longest and
deepest capitalist expansion in history. In a May 1958 article, written as
a reply to British ex-Marxist John Strachey who believed capitalism had
resolved its basic contradictions, Braverman openly and courageously dealt
with the question of 'immiseration' which had been central to the concerns
of 1930s radical movement:

"All the above difficulties in Marxism obviously stem from the fact that
the capitalist system has persisted, and restabilized itself repeatedly,
over a much longer period than had been expected. The great expansion in
labor productivity which has created such new and different conditions was
not unexpected in the Marxian economic structure, a structure which, as no
other before or since, focused on the technological revolutions which
capitalism is forced to work continuously as a condition of its existence.
What was unexpected was capitalism’s length of life and its ability to
expand. Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent
crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in
a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for
another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a
system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon.."

The capitalist expansion of the 1950s was not the only thing that was
unexpected. It also saw the beginning of the automation revolution. In an
effort to understand what was different from the 1930s, you could not
ignore something this major. In October 1954, Cochran wrote:

"Everyone has heard of 'automation' by now and knows it is a new giant
stride in the elimination of human labor in production by the use of
automatic machinery, electronic computers and feedback controls. Few
factories are as yet built on complete 'automation' lines, which in its
strict scientific definition describes electronic or magnetic-tape control
of complete sequence operations. Partial use of the new technology,
however, is already becoming common. In continuous-flow-process industries,
such as petrochemicals, many plants are on the verge of complete
automation. Fortune magazine analysts believe even more startling changes
may come in the white collar field with the introduction of high speed
'memory' and computing machines such as 'Univac' or IBM’s No. 702."

So if Univac rather than Armageddon was on the agenda, what would be the
best hope for social change? As we know, the civil rights movement was
starting up. The American Socialist provided some of the best coverage of
this new movement, including dispatches from Carl Braden and Albert Maund,
the author of "The Big Boxcar" who is in his mid-80s now and living in New
Orleans. The great civil rights attorney Conrad Lynn served on the
editorial board. WEB DuBois was also an occasional contributor.

It also examined some of the social contradictions that would eventually
give birth to the environmental movement. Reuben Borough, who had been the
editor of Upton Sinclair's EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign in
1934, served on the editorial board of American Socialist as well. In
September, 1957, long before the publication of Rachel Carsons "Silent
Spring," Borough began writing about the environment from a Marxist

"The problem of the conversion of power from these various non-depletable
sources has never been under sustained and organized inquiry in the United
States. This is a job beyond the immediate capacities of the isolated
laboratories of the private enterprisers—they cannot solve the problem in
time. Public enterprise can and must solve it. The loyal citizen of the
Earth Planet must marshal the political forces necessary to that end. The
long and ruthless raid of Greed upon the basic wealth of Nature must be
stopped. Loving care must take the place of the befoulment and destruction
of man's environment. This is the inescapable task and responsibility of
the religion of conservation."

Let me conclude. There was no such thing as "Cochranism." It neither added
nor subtracted anything to Marxist thought. Instead the Cochranites
represent one of the most advanced and sustained efforts to apply a
classical Marxist analysis to American society in the mid 20th century. The
fact that they failed to build a new Marxist left is not an indictment of
their methodology nor their analyses. They were just ahead of their time.
If a new Marxist left in the United States is to succeed today, it will be
along the lines set down by Socialist Union. You can bet on that.

Solidarity represents an effort to move in the direction set down by the
Cochranites. I would invite these comrades to study the archives of the
American Socialist to see how an earlier generation confronted the task of
building a non-sectarian socialist movement based on Marxist principles.

As Bert Cochran said to a gathering of the Socialist Union at its inception
in May 1954:

"We approach all these strata, however, in the spirit of Marx's Communist
Manifesto which proclaimed that the revolutionists had no interests
separate and apart from the working class, that we are not a special sect,
cult, or church, which seeks to draw people out of the broad currents into
its backwater, but rather as American Marxists, we seek to join with others
in advancing the existing struggles to a higher stage and on a broader
front. We are convinced that out of these struggles and experiences, even
before big mass forces take to the field, Left currents will arise with
which we shall be able to cooperate and fuse; that the American Marxist
tendency, as a stronger formation than at present, will thus be able to
discharge its role as a left wing in the big movement-as part and parcel of
the struggle to create the mass revolutionary party in the United States.
That is our perspective."

Louis Proyect
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