Milton Fisk

Socialism From Below in the United States


Chapter V
The Independent Socialist Clubs and the Sixties


1. Origins of the Independent Socialist Committee

The Berkeley campus revolt was the step in the student movement that coincided with the founding of the Independent Socialist Committee. The SP was integrated into capitalist politics. The Berkeley SP and YPSL split off with 16 people led by Geier and Draper. Their new group aimed to preserve the politics of the third camp. [1] It was not to be an action center, but an educational center.


2. The Free Speech Movement – 1964

The activisim of the Friends of SNCC, of Campus CORE, and of the Ad Hoc Committee to End Discrimination took University of California students at Berkeley off the campus and into collision with the California power structure. Campus and Berkeley CORE engaged in local projects to get fair hiring agreements. The Ad Hoc Committee picketed William Knowland’s Oakland Tribune. SNCC collected money for its Mississippi project. Clark Kerr, president of UC – whose liberalism was summed up in his phrase, “Don’t make ideas safe for students but students safe for ideas” – had ordered, in 1959, all political activity off campus. On September 14, 1964, Kerr ordered that club tables on the sidewalk of Bancroft Avenue to be taken down. The Tribune had pointed out that the area was UC property, not city property. Kerr could not ignore the fact that political activity was going on at UC property since he was pushing a bond issue for UC through the legislature.

The ISC was active in the Berkeley campus Free Speech Movement that these events gave rise to. The FSM was formed on October 10 shortly after the compromise worked out for the release of Jack Weinberg, who had been arrested at a Campus CORE table. Students surrounded the police car to which Weinberg had been led and in which he remained for 32 hours. A coalition of 13 clubs – ranging from the ISC to Students for Goldwater – demanded that the charges against Weinberg be dropped and that suspended students be reinstated. Many of these clubs were active in the FSM. Draper’s ISC pamphlet The Mind of Clark Kerr [2] was important in the FSMs understanding of the campus situation.

The FSM was a majority current on campus by December when UC tried to dismiss the main student leader, Mario Savio. At that time, the ISC and Campus CORE were a strong militant left wing of the FSM. Kerr tried to split YPSL from the FSM in order to have a “reasonable group to deal with, but he wouldn’t grant even YPSL’s demands. According to Draper, “The main job of expounding radical interpretations of the ‘free speech’ fight was carried by the ‘old’ radicals – mostly the USC, in a number of interpretive meetings and a culminating ‘Conference on the Student Revolt’ in January [1965].” [3] The FSM precipitated a spirit of self-organization among faculty and teaching assistants, who both formed AFT locals, the ISC being in the leadership of the TA Local 1570.

The ISC saw the student revolt as a reemergence of a genuine left opposition, an opposition that was not for the “permeation” of existing institutions like the DP but for the building of independent man organizations of the left. The period up to 1969 would tell whether this could be done.

The ISC could provide the political defense that liberal students and non-ideological new lefts were at a loss to give in their battles with the police. This political sophistication won the ISC numerous recruits. They couldn’t be held, though, since they could not be brought to accept the idea of a revolutionary alternative to the DP. They nonetheless rejected the DP. (The level of commitment of the new recruits was not that different from what they had had as independent activists.) At this stage, and up until 1968, the ISC did not see the revolutionary party as on the agenda, but was for it in principle. The leaders of the ISC publicly discussed Zionism, Kerr, the California DP, and the YSA position that Cuba was a healthy workers’ state. But their discussion of the union movement was not yet equally sophisticated.

The militancy demanded by the situation at UC diverted the ISC from its original intention of being a study group. Where there was mass struggle ISC was in the thick of it. The critical stance of the ISC toward Castroism and the Vietnamese NLF was an obstacle to recruitment from this mass work, in the way that later its critical stance toward Maoism was to be an obstacle to recruitment in the post-’68 new left. Though mainly centered in Berkeley, the ISC began to develop elsewhere. A small chapter of the ISC was soon formed around Sy Landy in New York.


3. Black Power Movement

The civil rights phase of the black movement died with the “too little too late” 1964 Civil Rights Act, as the follow up to the SP’s 1963 March on Washington, and with the refusal of the DP to seat the SNCC created MFDP at the 1964 DP convention. The ISC supported the emerging black power movement. The main thrusts of the black power movement were independent organization rather than permeation and self-defense rather than non-violence.

The ISC recognized the revolutionary potential of the ghetto uprisings. They represented the revolutionary aspirations of the black masses and the beginnings of the formation of a revolutionary perspective among blacks. They could spark a revolutionary movement in the US. The ISC urged political action after the direct action of the uprisings. [4] Blacks needed independent political organization and needed to get out of the DP.

Black revolutionary organizations were indeed formed. Among them the ISC supported the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which considered itself a revolutionary black nationalist organization. The BPP was formed in September 1966. Its Ten Point Program was a list of transitional demands. Point Seven asserted the right to self-defense: “We believe we can end police brutality in our black community by organizing black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our black community from racist police oppression and brutality .... We therefore believe that all black people should arm themselves for self-defense.” The BPP gained national visibility by putting this point into effect.

The ISC policy of alliance with mass movements in a non-sectarian fashion, which policy had been used by it in the FSM, was behind its stance toward the BPP. The BPP was Maoist and it didn’t have a working class, but rather a lumpen orientation and strategy. Still, it stood a chance of becoming the basis of a mass organization of blacks with revolutionary aspirations. It did become precisely this for a short period. Moreover, its emphasis on self-defense placed it in practical opposition to existing institutions and hence to capitalism.

It turned out that the BPP could be brought to form alliances with white organizations, and that it favored the idea of a new political party. Support by the ISC for the BPP – up to and including an alliance with it – would, the ISC thought, strengthen the tendency in the US toward independent political action and toward the acceptance of revolutionary ideas by both whites and blacks. The history of this possibility was worked out through the Peace and Freedom Party.


4. Peace and Freedom – 1967-1968

The California Peace and Freedom Party was the culmination of years of discontent with the DP. The ISC had opposed the DP right from its inception, when Lyndon Johnson was the DP presidential candidate. It opposed Johnson and the moratorium on civil rights demonstrations. In the 1966 elections, the ISC opposed anti-war DP candidates on the ground that since the DP is the party of the Vietnam War they can’t be serious without breaking with the DP. One of these candidates, Mike Hannon, in Los Angeles, agreed that his running in the DP was a compromise with imperialism. He joined the ISC. Other antiwar Democrats, edged away from the DP by organizing the Community for New Politics.

The CNP emerged from Ramparts editor Robert Scheer’s congressional campaign. Within the ISC different views developed on how to relate to the CNP. Jack Weinberg advocated building the CNP in order to move people. Mike Shute, backed by Stan Weir and Hal Draper, advocated drawing people out of the CNP and into socialist politics. Weinberg’s view was predominant. The Berkeley ISC then pushed for an independent CNP, not one that was half in the DP. This led the ISC to call within the CNP for a campaign to re-register California voters into a new party. The CP and Scheer opposed this, favoring a “third ticket” position – support not for a new party but for some candidates running outside the DP on a third ticket. After the directionless Chicago convention, in August-September, 1967, of the National Conference for New Politics – at which ISC supported a King-Spock slate for the presidency – many of the Californians in the CNP were convinced of the need to build a new party. But, when it was formed, the CNP and Scheer gave only weak endorsement to the new party, The Peace and Freedom Party.

The two issues of the PFP were immediate withdrawal of the US from the Vietnam war and support for the liberation of blacks. This was a minimum radical program to unite anti-war whites with black liberationists. The BPP joined the PFP on the basis of the single issue of freeing Huey Newton, a BPP leader accused of killing a policeman. “Free Huey” was the slogan counterposed to the liberal notion of a fair trial. The new party had to register 100,000 voters by January 1, 1968, in order to get a place on the ballot in the 68 election. Since significant black participation did not materialize, the ISC took over the re-registration campaign and registered 67,000 voters into the PFP. In all 105,000 were registered with the PFP in California.

The strong campaign of Eugene McCarthy for DP presidential candidate took the wind out of the PFP sails, despite the attempts of the PFP to say that McCarthy accommodated on the war issue to liberalism and the establishment. The nomination of Hubert Humphrey by the DP in the summer did not rescue the PFP. The ISC was forced to recognize “the failure to create a new party functioning on a broad minimum radical program.” [5]

The position of the ISC was that a middle class white party with a minimum radical program could not succeed unless it developed a real base among workers and blacks. The middle class whites who registered in the party would capitulate to the DP unless the PFP changed from a protest party to a party booed on fighting movements of the materially exploited. [6] The McCarthy campaign came along before the orientation to the materially exploited could be brought out of the realm of promise. And the party collapsed.

In evaluating the PFP work of the ISC. the 1970 Tasks and Perspectives of the IS noted that, “Our working class orientation was little more than rhetoric, since it could be nothing else.” It was true there was only a rudimentary working class movement from which to draw workers into the party. Could the perspective of building a middle class party, with the purpose of radicalizing its members, be regarded as a viable one in the absence of a working class movement? Was there perhaps an alternative to building the PFP that was opening up in the student movement?

The PFP was said to have been worthwhile for the following reasons: (1) the PFP-BPP alliance was the first time whites worked with a black nationalist group thereby bringing black liberation to the fore for anti-war whites; (2) when the PFP was established in other states, the BPP was set up there also; (3) unlike the SWP, which ran a socialist campaign irrelevant to the movement in 1967-1968, the ISC built on the movement there actually was in building the PFP; and (4) the PFP campaign recruited for the ISC and gave its members valuable experience in mass organizing.

However, the PFP exacted a heavy toll. (1) In attempting to move middle-class people the first step away from the DP, the ISC vacillated in the PFP on the practical question of moving toward making the PFP into a labor party. Even in the absence of a labor movement efforts in the direction of working people should not be sacrificed for the sake of maintaining a middle-class front. The Spartacus League in California and the Progressive Labor Party in New York City outflanked the ISC in supporting a labor party perspective for the PFP. (2) After the PFP campaign collapsed, the ISC had a total of only 60 members in October 1968. Its intervention had been successful in re-registering voters but not in getting its own politics across. By contrast, the Maoist Revolutionary Union emerged from the coming together of Berkeley new lefts in the PFP and a group of ex-PLers in the Bay Area. By the time of the 1969 Students for a Democratic Society convention ISC had grown only to 100. (3) The choice was not between the irrelevant SWP 1968 electoral campaign and the reformist PFP campaign. In 1968 the SDS began to shed its anti-authoritarian attitude for a serious consideration of socialism. There was then the possibility of relating to a socialist current within the student movement. While the ISC was exerting itself in the PFP and coming out with little to show for it, the Stalinists of PL and RU were intervening in the SDS with considerable success in terms of building their own groups. – In sum, the experience of ISCers in the PFP campaign taught them the methods of depoliticized mass work. Such work judges its success in purely organizational terms, not in terms of deepening the socialist current.


5. The Spread of the Independent Socialists

The number of Independent Socialist clubs was increasing. To coordinate the clubs the Independent Socialist Clubs of America – still commonly referred to as the ISC – was founded in New York in September, 1967. The Independent Socialist, which began to appear in early 1967, became the quarterly magazine of the ISC.

At the same time the PFP was being built, the ISC was active in building the Stop the Draft Week (October 16-21, 1967) in Berkeley, where the aim was to close down the Oakland induction center. [7] Large numbers of students were mobilized by this action. During this period the ISC was also involved in the efforts of Caesar Chavez to build a union among the farm workers in California. The IS had reports on the Delano grape workers’ strike. [8]


6. National Liberation and the Third Camp

The persistent position of the ISC and ultimately of the International Socialists was that of unconditional withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam. The position of a negotiated settlement was never backed. Since the US should withdraw there was nothing to negotiate. The basis for this position was unalterable opposition to US imperialism, whatever form it took.

However, after 1968 there was a change of position by the ISC on the question of support for the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. Before 1968, the position had been one of no support for the NLF. After 1968, the position became one of support for the military victory of the NLF while opposing the political leadership of the NLF and the Provisional Revolutionary. Government because of its Stalinist nature. This change in propagandistic position in regard to the NLF did not change the agitational stance in regard to immediate withdrawal.

The Third Camp position requires support for a workers’ movement against both Stalinism and a capitalist regime. Applied to Vietnam in 1967, this meant thiat “As radicals and human beings we must support independent movements workers and peasants as the alternative to the new communist rulers ....” [9] The Program in Brief of the ISC read, “In Vietnam we favor not only popular revolution against American domination but also the rejection by the masses involved in that revolution of the Communist leadership of the NLF.” [10] The supposition here was that of the existence of a movement independent of the Stalinist NLF and the corrupt Diem regime. Workers were still throwing rocks In the streets of Saigon in 1966. The NLF did not recruit strongly in the urban areas. The NLF was strong but it was not yet decided that it would play the main role. Buddhists overthrew General Ky in 1965-66 in calling for free elections and a civilian government. They were part of an independent anti-war movement in Vietnam. The ISC argued that these facts could not be ignored by the supporters of the Third Camp; one could not give up on the working class until it was clear that it was defeated.

The Tet Offensive was the clear sign that the working class – that indeed any third force – was defeated. The NLF showed in That offensive that it could penetrate the cities with arms with the implicit consent of the population. It had become the leader of the struggle and there was no alternative leadership. The Third Camp perspective on this situation had, then, to give away to another perspective, without in any way denying the applicability of the Third Camp position where there is indeed a third camp. [11] All anti-US, anti-imperialist, anti-Saigon sentiment had been channeled into the NLF. There was no third force to support.

Support for the NLF’s military victory over the US had precedents in military support for the bourgeois Loyalist Government in Spain in 1937-1939 against Fascism even after the Loyalist Government had destroyed the working class revolution of July 1936, and in military support for the FLN in the national liberation struggle in Algeria after it had destroyed the MNA for hegemony in the struggle. [12]

The question of support for national liberation was raised when the nature of the war in Vietnam had changed. This change was additional to, though riot completely separable from, the defeat of any Third force. The war had been a civil war but had changed to a war of national liberation. The US had propped Up the Saigon regime all along, but at a certain stage that regime could claim no local support. Again, this was clear from the Tet Offensive, when the city of Saigon itself became the host of thousands of enemy troops before a shot was fired. Previously there had been a war between the NLF and the regime in Saigon that had some local support. The struggle of the NLF was for the overthrow of that regime, and in such a war the ISC could support neither side. However, with its intervention growing after 1965, the US became the enemy and the war was no longer a civil war but one of national liberation. “We do not have any doubt that in (say) 1958 the civil war element was dominant. But in 1968 everyone knows that the US has taken over the brunt of the fighting; no one really pretends that the American military involvement is simply an auxiliary aid to the patriotic army of South Vietnam defending its homeland against invaders; it is commonplace that it is ‘America’s war now.’ ” [13]

The Leninist policy on national liberation thus became relevant at the same time that the Third Camp policy on independent forces became irrelevant. The defeat of a third force did not itself imply support for the NLF. The war could have remained a civil war. Only because it became a national liberation struggle from the US could the bureaucratic collectivists be supported. Otherwise it would have been correct to say, as Don Bacheller said in criticism of the position of support, that “A victory for the NLF in Vietnam would in no way promote the realization of the goals of revolutionary socialists .... A victory for the NLF would make the realization of these goals in the present period more difficult by strengthening the power of the bureaucratic communist alternative to capitalist imperialism.” [14] Since nations have the right of self-determination, the Vietnamese had the right to choose their regime. By giving their support to the NLF, they made a choice they had a right to make. This was a choice they could not follow out if the military victory of the NLF were not supported. The defeat of the NLF would have meant that they would be denied self-determination. And socialist revolutionaries could in the case of Vietnam, anticipate the time when the Vietnamese would topple their new bureaucratic exploiters. [15]

The New Left, like the CP, was for negotiations in 1966 and for ratifying the PRG’s Peace Treaty in 1971. On the one hand, the nine point peace program of 1970 and the seven point program of 1971 did not shorten the war. Nixons peace treaty disarmed no one; it allowed the US and the USSR to talk about trade without the erñbárassment of open war. The war stopped only when, in 1975, there was withdrawal, which the ISC and the IS had called for. On the other hand, the peace programs gave the Stalinists a chance to veil their anti-democratic character with liberal sounding documents. These PRG programs were a cover story for liberal consumption to promote liberal support for Stalinism.

There are several things to consider in assessing the ISC approach to the Vietnam War. The ISC did not grow on the basis of the anti-war movement as did the SWP, in the US, and, in Britain, the International Socialists. Instead of entering the movement on the unequivocal basis of anti-imperialism and withdrawal, the ISC propaganda appeared to be primarily an attack on the NLF. [1*] Anti-Stalinism hobbled efforts to attract people on the basis of anti-imperialism. By contrast, the British IS, which helped build the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, raised the slogan “Victory to the NLF” while reserving for theoretical articles the point that the NLF would not lead to socialism.

The assessment that the war had been a civil war rather than one of national liberation till 1968 gave too much to the State Department. The war was a continuation in the South of the 1946-54 national liberation war against the French. The difference was that the US had replaced the French, through propping up first Diem and then Thieu-Ky. There was no time when these regimes were militarily or politically viable apart from the US. The Leninist doctrine of supporting the right of nations to self-determination had not ceased to have application in the South after the defeat of France at Dienbienphu and the Geneva agreement to partition the country.

Moreover, the third force idea never had a legitimate application. The Buddhists could obstruct the path of the puppet Saigon regimes. Neither they, the other sect groups, nor the students could conduct the necessary political-military struggle to throw the US out. A year after its founding in 1960, the NLF commanded massive support in the numerically dominant countryside. It needed just this force for conducting such a struggle. The working class as such nowhere appeared as an organized force against imperialism. To speak of a “third force” at all is only to repeat the valid but, for the success of the national liberation struggle, largely irrelevant liberal contention that the NLF alone did not represent “the will of the people of South Vietnam. But this was true after Tet as well.


7. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers Strike

In 1968, New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, under the presidency of Albert Shanker, struck over the issue of teacher transfers, which had resulted from a Ford Foundation supported community-control-of-schools program. Some white teachers were transferred out to allow for more non-white teachers in a non-white community. The ISC maintained it was correct to cross the picket lines. The UFT had no contractual restrictions against transfers and had not fought the transfers of anti-war activists. Earlier, the UFT had aligned with anti-union politicians to defeat community control.

The UFT’s strike ruptured alliances between teachers and the civil right movement, since community control in this case meant a greater voice for blacks and latinos in their schools. [16] Opposing the racism of the strike was not in this case a tactic that, as Shanker claimed, played into the hands of union busters. In fact, the union’s greatest growth stemmed from the strike. Nonetheless, the specific issue of community control on which ISC opposition was based had not been clearly formulated within a broad perspective that puts emphasis on working class as well as community issues.




1*. In the Program In Brief in IS In 1968-69, the demand for withdrawal was placed after the call to the Vietnamese masses to reject the Communist NLF leadership.



1. Draper, Independent Socialism: A Perspective for the Left, ISC, 1964.

2. Reprinted in NP, 1965.

3. Hal Draper, Berkeley: The New Student Revolt, Grove, 1965.

4. Mike Parker, Watts, The Liberal Response, NP4, No. 3, ’65.

5. Independent Socialist 7, Oct. ’68.

6. Michael Friedman, The Peace and Freedom Party, NP6, No.2, March ’68.

7. IS3, Nov. ’67.

8. To back the UFWOC Anne and Hal Draper published The Dirt on California: Agribusiness and the University, IS pamphlet, 1968.

9. IS2, March-April ’67.

10. IS4, April ’68; through 12, Sept. ’69.

11. This is overlooked in the mistaken criticism by the Spartacist League in International Socialists: Left Wing of Democracy, RCY pamphlet 1973 pp.19ff.

12. Hal Draper, A Political Guide to the ABC of National Liberation Movements, no date; this document is the key theoretical piece in the change of ISC policy on support for the NLF.

13. Draper, The ABC of National Liberation.

14. Bacheller, IS4, April ’68.

15. James Coleman, Self-Determination and the NLF, Workers’ Power 45-46, Nov. 12-25, ’71.

16. Steve Zeluck, The UFT Strike: A Blow Against Teacher Unionism, NP7, No.1, Winter ’68.


Last updated on 9.1.2002