Milton Fisk

Socialism From Below in the United States


Chapter IV
The Fight for Democracy and the Fifties


1. The Founding of the Independent Socialist League

The Independent Socialist League was founded at the March 1949 national convention of the WP. Hal Draper was the architect of the change. At issue was the nature of a revolutionary party. The WP proclaimed its failure to form a party – it was half the size it had been at the end of the war – because of (1) the degeneration of the Russian revolution and the effects of Stalinism, (2) the backward condition in the US working class, and (3) the conservatizing effect of the threat of a Third World War, the on-set of the Cold War, and the rise of McCarthyism.

The ISL identified itself as a propaganda group. A propaganda group is distinguished from a discussion group in several ways. First, a propaganda group has a program and its members are obliged to propagandize that program, whereas a study group has no program. Second, a propaganda group will nonetheless agitate by, for example, leading some strikes, though its main emphasis will be on bringing the ideas of socialism to the working class and to oppressed groups. However, a study or a discussion group will neither agitate by leading actions of the working class or oppressed groups nor be in the working class to spread ideas. Rather, it spreads ideas only among its own members. [1*] Distinct from both a propaganda group and a discussion group is a party-a mass organization of action. The ISL did not want to give its contacts the illusion that they would be joining a party, for this could only lead to demoralization once they joined. It was stressed that a party could not emerge out of a propaganda group merely as a result of recruitment. The ability to agitate effectively requires more than just numbers; it also requires a will to action and the appropriate conditions within the working class and oppressed groups. [1]

In addition to this change of organizational perspective, the ISL projected the fight for democratic rights as part of its program. The new slogan was: The Fight for Democracy and the Fight for Socialism are Inseparable. The argument was: the liberals have become ineffective; There is a trend toward militarization and authoritarianism; socialists can be in The van of the fight to protect democratic rights and this will be their means of fighting for socialism. This emphasis on democratic rights merely institutionalized the trend that began in the WP in 1943.


2. The Three Cornered Fight

The Stalinists lost the UAW in 1947; in December 1949, the CIO expelled the CP led unions. The ISL was in support of the expulsions, worrying only that by expelling the CP led unions the CIO leaders put themselves in the US war camp.

The general policy had been outlined by Shachtman. [2] Stalinism crushes the working class in coming to power. It is more dangerous than capitalism in the working class. It is an “anti-bourgeois anti-proletarian current IN but not OF the labor movement.” It is the new barbarism that results from the proletariat not living up to its revolutionary task. Reformists have to preserve the labor movement to hold power; Stalinists have to destroy it. In the three-cornered fight between capitalism, Stalinism, and labor, a temporary alliance of labor with capitalism may be necessary. “Without any hesitation, [the militants] should follow the general line, inside the labor movement, of supporting the reformist officialdom against the Stalinist officialdom. In other words, where it is not yet possible to win the unions for the leadership of revolutionary militants, we forthrightly prefer the leadership of the reformism ....” This policy of not building an independent base of revolutionaries in the unions led within a decade to the liquidation of the ISL into the SP, which oriented to labor bureaucrats and reform politicians.

If the working class is to support capitalist oriented officials in the labor movement should it also support US foreign policy against the USSR? The ISL said No; this would be, according to the ISLs first International Resolution [3], giving up on socialism in our epoch. Socialist victory is the aim of the third camp, and it is seen as the only way out of the joint capitalist-Stalinist degeneration.

Hal Draper laid out the foundations of this position in The Myth of Lenin’s Defeatism – III. [4] He saw the potential for lesser-evilism in foreign policy in Shachtman’s views, a potential that was realized in the 605. In the Third World War, a defeat of the USSR is, Draper granted, a lesser evil than that of the US. On the lesser-evil approach, socialists would, then, support the defeat of the USSR and the victory of the US. But, says Draper, the third camp is for neither defeat nor victory when it comes to a war between the imperialist powers. It is for pursuing working class aims at the risk of the defeat of its own government. Pursuing those aims is above the victory-defeat dichotomy of lesser-evilism. Unfortunately this correct theory of “revolutionary defeatism” did not prevent a rightward drift in ISL’s foreign policy.

It seems clear that, in the absence of a mass socialist movement Shachtman’s trade union policy of following capitalist labor officials as opposed to Stalinists had its natural outcome in his later support for the Vietnam War and his anti-communist foreign policy generally. The development in the ISL of Stalinophobia in union policy and in foreign policy came partly from the ISL’s overestimation of the strength of Stalinism and its underestimation of the contradictions of Stalinism. Stalinism did not win out after WWII in Western Europe, nor did it win out in the African anti-colonial struggles. Also, the meaning of the conflict between efforts at centralization by Moscow and independent actions by the national CPs was not fully apparent to the ISL. Furthermore, the behavior of a CP is not to be understood simply in terms of its final aim of taking state power. The actual program of a CP when it is not in a position to take state power will not be one of crushing the working class to make way for party rule. There was, for example, no prospect of the CP-USA taking state power in 1949. Thus a response to it based on the supposition that it was planning to take state power by crushing the labor movement had the earmarks of paranoia.

In any event, a strategy of interventions by socialists based on the goal of the self-emancipation of the working class is the way to split workers from the CP. Splitting them from the CP by binding them hand and foot to the capitalist labor bureaucracy does nothing toward advancing the emancipation of workers.


3. Korea and Hungary

The third camp position was applied by the ISL to the Korean War, which began in 1950. The seeds of the war were seen in the cynical imperialist partition of The country by Washington and Moscow. There were puppet regimes on both sides of the division. Responsibility for the war fell on the US and USSR crimes at the Yalta conference where the division was agreed to. The ISL urged labor to stay independent of US imperialist policy in Korea. Support for that policy would move the world closer to WWIII.

In 1956 the workers of Poznan, Poland, rose up and were crushed. Later, in October and early November, the Hungarians overthrew their Stalinist government. A reformist government shared power briefly with workers’ councils. The backbone of the revolution became the working clan. The ISL saw this as the turning point in The post WWII era: it was the first revolution against Stalinism. The ISL picketed the Russian Delegation in New York against Russian intervention in the revolution.

Later when the Russians had decisively crushed the revolution, the ISL issued a challenge to CP militants in the US: Which side are you on, the side of the Hungarian workers or the side of the Russian army? [5] The Daily Worker at first supported the Hungarian workers’ councils, but after an editorial shake up, the Moscow line was reestablished. However, the 25,000 who left the CP in 1956 could not be recruited to other groups. Shachtman wanted to recruit them, not on the Russian question, but on support for the working class. They had nothing left of a fighting spirit. They could be recruited neither to the ISL nor to the SP, but gravitated to the reform wing of the Democratic Party.


4. Permanent War Economy

From the beginning the ISL based itself on an economic perspective which saw war production not as something that ended with WWII but as something that for capitalism was is “a legitimate and significant end-purpose of economic activity.” [7] Vance [2*] saw this Permanent War Economy as a means of eliminating the political problem of unemployment by striking a blow at the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. He saw it as leading to a chronic problem of inflation and of deficient supply of consumer goods.

The root motivation for the PWE was sun by Vance in the rising organic composition of capital, which led to a falling rate of profit. “If therefore only a very high ratio of war outlays to total output can reduce the composition of capital or, at least, arrest the tendency toward a constantly increasing composition of capital, then the economic motives for American imperialism to engage in such activities in foreign policy as warrant an increase in war outlays, even if the ultimate consequence is all-out war, are laid bare for all those with eyes to see who wish to see.” [8] Thus, with The advent of the PWE, imperialist foreign policy is derivative from arms production. Vance’s contention provided a firm base for anticipating a post-WWII economic boom of considerable duration.


5. Civil Liberties

By 1950 the pages of LA carried very little news of the actions of the labor ranks. But LA was vigorously protesting McCarthy era attacks on civil liberties. The ISL did not mind the demise of Stalinism in the US. But it saw attacks on Stalinists by the capitalist government as a threat to the civil liberties of all.

Thus it protested the conviction of former Stalinist Harry Bridges of the Longshoremen’s union as a blow to civil liberties. It protested the McCarran Act of 1950, under which Communists were sentenced, as a police state law. It held civil rights rallies, and was especially concerned when non-Stalinists began to come under attack. Socialists of all kinds in the unions were investigated by the FBI; Their employers were notified that they were subversives; and they were dismissed without the right to hear the evidence against them. LA defended university teachers who were fired or harassed as subversives.

The ISL made a sustained attempt to have its name removed from the Attorney General’s list. Shachtman testified at length at Justice Department hearings; Burnham, at the time with William Buckley’s right-wing National Review, testified for the government, revealing that earlier he had been acting as an FBI informant. With ADA lawyer Joseph L. Rauh Jr. as attorney, ISL won its case to get off the subversive organizations list just as it was dissolving into the SP.


6. The Young Socialist League

The ISL youth group, the Young Socialist League, formed in 1963 when a group in YPSL, which accepted the third camp position, pushed YPSL out of the SP and into the ISL. Challenge, the newspaper of YSL, had a one page section in LA; Anvil (1954-60) was the YSL journal with Sam Bottone as editor. Michael Harrington was national chairman of YSL, and Sy Landy one of its National Action Committee members.

YSL played a role in the 1956 Madison Square Garden rally to raise money for the Montgomery, Alabama, boycott. In 1957, YSL was active on campuses supporting the black based Prayer Pilgrimage to Freedom movement. It was also involved in forming the New York student committee of SANE.


7. Democratic Socialism and Leninism

At its June 1957 national convention, the ISL endorsed the unity of all democratic socialist forces under the banner of the SP-SDF (Social Democratic Federation). The SP and the SDF had recently merged. Socialism was not going to arise again unless it “comes forward unambiguously as a democratic movement.

Shachtman had rejected Leninism in a long review of Theodore Draper’s The Roots of American Communism. [9] “Everything positive that the Communists did contribute to the cause of socialism in this country could have been contributed just as well ... if they had worked ... as an integral part of a broad, united socialist party.” The CP had been a wrecker; it wrecked the SP in 1919. And the Trotskyists had been wreckers; they had wrecked the SP in 1936-38. “The theory of the independent revolutionary party dies hard.” The ISL would enter the SP-SDF, not to take out its left wing, but to form a broad, multi-tendency, democratic party.

According to Harrington, the four years experience of YSL made it quite natural to form a broad “Debsian party.” YSL then dissolved into YPSL.

According to an ISL resolution, “When socialism faces the realistic prospect of rebuilding its political movement all socialist sects become futile and even reactionary .... We are strongly in favor of a broad party with full party democracy for all, which does not demand creedal conformity on all questions .... Such conformity typifies the sect.” [10] The Debsian party would not be a long term commitment for Shachtman and Harrington. For both of them, realignment with the Democratic Party was soon to follow. Harrington now sees the Debs Party-German SDP model as “sectarian,” and in its place he puts forward the British Labor Party-DP model as the one where all the people who will be needed for constructing socialism are to be found. [11]

At the May-June 1958 national convention of the SP-SDF ISLers were welcomed into the party provided they made individual applications and pledged themselves to party discipline. In September, the ISL accepted the offer and urged its members to make individual applications. LA and NI were put at the service of SP-SDF, and were thereupon discontinued. [3*]


8. Democratic Foreign Policy

The notion of a democratic foreign policy meant different things to different people in the expanded SP. Prior to the dissolution of ISL, Sam Bottone said, “What we have tried to do however is to put forth a series of policies for the solution of some of the key world problems which can be effective and which can be supported by anyone devoted to democracy and freedom, whether or not he be a socialist .... Top priority [should] be given to such programs encourage and support the masses in every country in the world to work and to fight for their own emancipation, progress, and development.” [12]

In Hungary, for example, the Russians had the excuse they needed to crush the revolution since the US had troops in Europe. Pulling out the troops would have been an implementation of democratic foreign policy. The new SP newspaper, New America, at first edited by Harrington, said the Cuban missile crisis was due to a lack of democratic foreign policy toward Cuba.

But Draper thought a merely democratic foreign policy wasn’t enough; it had to be radical democratic and anti-imperialist. A merely democratic foreign policy that was soft on Third World struggles for independence was not enough. It included the possibility of giving a “peace veneer” to power politics. It tended to the idea of negotiated settlement of the Cold War, and gave advise to the capitalist imperialist camp. Stabilization can’t be the aim, only revolutionary transformation. Thus there should be unilateral initiatives promoting social revolution in the Third World, troop withdrawals, recognition of China and East Germany. These things could not be done in isolation from building a socialist revolution, but they can be called for along with certain liberals. [13]

Harrington supported India against China in the border dispute as an application of a democratic foreign policy. Hal Draper, in a minority position for the SP, supported neither side. The CIA Bay of Pigs invasion provided further differences in the interpretation of democratic foreign policy. Draper opposed the April 1961 invasion of Cuba by the US. He pointed out that the State Department was in no way interested in the democratic rights of Cubans subjected to Castroist bureaucratic collectivism. Shachtman supported US imperialism in the invasion; the remnants of left-wing socialism and of the purged unions were in the invasion and Shachtman said they should be supported. [14] This was a break with the third camp.

More and more, within the mainstream of the SP the range of alternatives extended from an identification of democratic foreign policy with an anti-Stalinist foreign policy to an identification of democratic foreign policy with a politicization rather than militarization of foreign policy. Thus on the Vietnam war, Larry O’Connor, who supported Senator Fulbright’s type of democratization of foreign policy, illustrated the second alternative when he said that the war should be democratized and politicized against Chinese totalitarianism. Ephram Friend illustrated the first alternative when he said that to pull out of Vietnam would strengthen the hold of Stalinism on other peoples of Southeast Asia. [15]

Draper’s position had little in common with these mainstream SP alternatives in regard to democratic foreign policy. The mainstream was debating differences within the scope of debate in the State Department. The drift to the right was inevitable in a party that based it broadness on anti-Leninism.



News about YPSL gradually disappeared from NA. After a long silence there was a notice on 10-31-64 that YPSL had been suspended by the NAC of SP. The reality was that there was an active left wing in YPSL. This loft wing opposed the realignment with the DP urged by Harrington and Shachtman. Harrington stumped for Johnson in 1964, since the DP was now where labor and blacks were. Julius Jacobson warned that Lyndon Johnson would implement Barry Goldwater’s program, which he did. Bayard Rustin, who, along with A. Philip Randolph, was a leading black in the SP, criticized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party for upsetting the apple cart at the DP ’64 convention.

The Labor Party Caucus of YPSL opposed this realignment with the DP. It was under the leadership of Joel Geier and of those following Hal Draper. But on foreign policy the Labor Party Caucus split, with the Sy Landy-Michael Shute group showing softness to US imperialism. Another YPSL group, the American Socialist Organizing Committee, of which Kim Moody was a member, would cooperate with no one who did not share its full politics. It collapsed after it tried to form a separate “youth party.”

People from the SP came into YPSL to form factional tendencies. Recruitment to the YPSL was to these tendencies. The Shachtman tendency fell apart in 1960-1961 over realignment to the DP. Shachtman intervened at a YPSL NC meeting on the Bay of Pigs question. This question decisively split YPSL. The third camp tendency supported an overthrow of Castro by the Cuban proletariat. But realistically there was no proletarian movement in Cuba. This led those who claimed to stand for the third camp to raise the question of supporting the Florida based left-wing Cubans. They gave serious consideration to supporting the invasion because they had been demoralized by Castro’s takeover of the democratic movement against Batista.

A youth group without a cohesive parent party cannot build revolutionary cadre. There was no common program taken from the SP around which to flop the faction fights in YPSL. Each faction fight contained the seeds of the next. There were in addition to the political factions all breeds of counter culture in YPSL – drug culture, free sex, vegetarians, etc. The appeal was, after all, broadness. (The internal factional swamp resembled the situation in the New American Movement today with its make-work politics.) YPSL had fallen apart by the time of the suspension in 1964. The only discipline was within the factions, with greater discipline in the right-wing factions.


10. The Rise of the Student Movement

With the demonstrations in San Francisco in 1960 against HUAC hearings the stirrings among students became obvious. The leaders of YPSL took note of this.

Mike Parker was organizing the Student Peace Union in 1961. He was pushing a position of unilateral disarmament, without illusions about the USSR following suit. US weapons did not exist to promote democracy. All nuclear stockpiles were to be done away with. The opposition to this view called for disarmament by both major powers.

Tom Kahn was leading the YPSL civil rights work. Freedom rides were supported. His 1960 pamphlet The Unfinished Revolution outlined the civil rights movement up to that point. Kahn recruited black SNCC and CORE militants, who were at first pro-Democratic Party.

In August 1963 the SP organized the March on Washington which demanded civil rights legislation, an end to school segregation, federal programs to train and place all unemployed, no discrimination in employment, etc. The march drew over 200,000. Randolph and Rustin were given credit for organizing it; Shachtman had the original idea; and in the end the march was taken over by a liberal-labor coalition represented by Martin Luther King Jr. and Walter Reuther, with Meany not supporting it. [16]

But the civil rights policies of the mainstream of the SP were less than enlightened. Kahn and August Meier predicted that among blacks there would be less direct action and more political action of the type that would attract business and labor. [17] One year later Watts destroyed this prediction. This was in fact a call for blacks to work in the DP, which was to be the opposite of what black militants began to do. Sam Bottone called for a labor party as the solution to civil rights issues, but he noted with horror the turn toward nationalism and violence in the black movement. [18]




1*. Its isolation from the working class actually prevented the ISL from functioning ass propaganda group in the full sense specified here.

2*. Vance’s other pen names were Walter J. Oakes and Frank Denby. He was employed in the business world as an economist analyzing business trends.

3*. Dissent, Liberation, and New Politics became the theoretical journals fitting the spectrum, from right to left, in the SP.



1. LA, 5-9-49; 5-16-49.

2. Shachtman, A Left Wing of the Labor Movement: Two Concepts of the Nature and Role of Stalinism, NI, Sept. ’49.

3. NI, Apr. ’49.

4. Draper, NI, Jan.-Feb. ’54.

5. LA, 11-12-56; H. W. Benson, The CP at the Crossroads, 40 pp.

6. NI, Apr. ’49.

7. T.N. Vance, The Permanent War Economy – I-VI, NI, Jan.-Dec. ’51.

8. Vance, NI, May-June ’51, p.150.

9. Shachtman, A Re-examination of the Past, NI, Fall ’57.

10. LA, 9-22-58.

11. Harrington. Socialism, 1972, p.310-311.

12. Bottone, LA, 5-19-58.

13. Hal Draper, Political Warfare Versus “Stabilization”, New Politics, III, No.1, Winter ’64.

14. Draper and Shachtman, Two Views on the Cuban Invaaion, Oakland, 1961.

15. O’Connor, Friend, New America, 8-16-64.

16. NA, Aug. and Sept. ’63.

17. Kahn and Meier, New Politics, ’64.

18. Bottone, NP, Summer ’64.


Last updated on 9.1.2002