Milton Fisk

Socialism From Below in the United States


Chapter VI
The International Socialists in the early Seventies


7. Shift of the Left to the Working Class

From 1968 on, the ISC tried to translate its working class perspective from the campus to the working class. It was necessary to begin to confront companies and union bureaucrats rather than campus administrators and police called on campuses. This transition coincided with the death of the new left, dated as the split in the SDS at its 1969 convention. But it was not a smooth transition. Some in the ISC in 1969 were still talking about organizing students around their needs, and the IS in 1970 had room for a discussion of open admissions in New York City. Yet more and more, attention was focusing on strike support. The ISC supported the Richmond, Calif., Standard Oil strike of 1969. It brought together Wallacite workers, unionized faculty, white students, and the San Francisco State University Third World Liberation Front.

The French May in 1968 was taken as a sign by the ISC that a new course was opening up. Socialists need no longer be caretakers, merely keeping the ideas alive in anticipation of a distant movement that would act on them. That had been the role of socialists since the middle years of the WP and until the high-point of the student movement. Now the struggle to build a revolutionary left was a meaningful one. Geier and Spector said, “Everywhere this embryo European revolution comes into collision with BOTH camps, stretching out a hand across the so-called Iron Curtain to the fighters on BOTH sides .... This puts on the agenda the development, out of the new leaders from below, of a New Revolutionary Left.” [1]

This perspective could have had a great attraction for radicalized students in 1968-69. In particular there was a growing need for ideology in the SDS, where the anti-authoritarian perspective that had grown out of liberalism had failed. The University of Chicago SDS and the CCNY SDS were open to a revolutionary outlook centered around the working class and socialism from below. But by 1969 Stalinism had become a massive current in SDS.

The Progressive Labor Party was a Maoist split from the CP in 1962 which retained the CP orientation to the working class. It intervened in SDS to farm the Worker-Student Alliance. But PL’s injection of revolutionary Communism was soon to be countered in the SDS with a new-left Maoism.

The ruling National Collective of SDS set up the Revolutionary Youth Movement in SDS. [1*] RYM adopted the anti-imperialist focus of Maoism, which in the US meant it gave primacy to support for the national liberation of blacks and latins. The focus was not then anti-capitalist. RYM got support from the Panthers, during the June 1969 SDS convention, for freezing the WSA out of SDS on the grounds that PL did not support the right of nations to self-determination.

The Maoism of RYM arose from the attention the white left generally gave to the black movement in the late 60s. That movement was the chief expression of the oppressed in the US in that period. And its revolutionary groupings, of which the Panthers were most important, had embraced Maoism as the politics appropriate to the liberation of third world people everywhere. The white left thus became decisively influenced by the Maoist politics of the “vanguard” of the black movement.

RYM’s approach to the working class was determined by the theory of “white skin privilege.” One can intervene with white workers to get them to give up their privileges in relation to blacks but not to help them better themselves. To help them better themselves is just to put more distance between them and blacks. The working class is important as an arena for getting support for the anti-imperialist struggles of third world people. But it is not a place to get white workers to make a revolution for themselves.

Counterposed to this perspective, that of working-class revolution put forth by the ISC expressed a forthright anti-capitalist line. [2] The theory of white skin privilege was little more than white liberal guilt parading as revolutionism. Nonetheless, a convergence was taking place in one important respect: WSA, RYM, and the SC had working class perspectives. The focus on the student was effectively over.


2. Revolutionary Socialism and the SDS

“For the first time in many years, there exists in the US a sizeable audience for revolutionary ideas – indeed, there is a hunger for revolutionary ideas .... Unless and until it becomes so superheated it explodes, SDS will be the cauldron in which America’s new revolutionary cadres will be developed.” [3] This comes from a report on the Austin National Council meeting of the SDS in March 1969 for which 1,200 people showed up. If this estimate is correct why was the SC not plying this mass audience with its rank and file, socialism from below perspective?

The RU from the Bay Area, which grew out of the Radical Caucus of the California PFP, intervened at the SDS NC in Austin and laid the basis There for the development of RYM II. (Once WSA was excluded, RYM broke into RYM II and Weatherman. [2*]) Doubtless many ISCers still thought it was possible to use the remains of the PFP to build a mass party. [4] Other ISCers thought the middle-class mess of SDS was not as promising as going directly to the working class. Nonetheless, the “new revolutionary left” of which Geier and Spector spoke in 1968 could not be created without revolutionaries and SDS was the best place to find potential revolutionaries in 1968-69. The relative numerical strength in the mid-’70s of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RUs successor) and of the October League derived from the hundreds of revolutionaries who were recruited to this brand of Maoism during the break up of the 30,000 strong SDS. [3*]

The ISC intervened at the June SDS convention in Chicago with 40 people. They were able to work with the Revolutionary Socialist Caucus of SDS from CCNY, which adopted a socialism-from-below approach. There was also a RSC at the University of Chicago. The call to make the RSC a national caucus in SDS got a response from 150 people out of the 3,000 attending the convention. The perspective of the new caucus was that workers were the primary group toward which revolutionaries should orient The new caucus did not last out the convention: RYM monitors attempted to break up its meetings; the RYM-WSA faction fight commanded the center of attention; and meetings were in competition with plenaries. After the collapse of RSC, two Chicago RSCers joined ISC and ran as ISCers for the SDS secretariat.


3. The Founding of the International Socialists

As a result of the Chicago SDS convention, the ISC grew. By the time the ISC had become the International Socialism, at the Labor Day, 1969, convention of the ISC, membership had jumped to 180 from the pro-June level of 100. The Ann Arbor, Detroit Chicago, and Long Beach SDSs contributed members. (But not all of this increase was due to the SDS intervention.) In 1970, the IS experienced a doubling of membership up to 350, with large growth, up to 100 members in the Bay Area. The ISC had established relations with the International Socialists of Great Britain. Tony Cliff, Nigel Harris, and others, had articles reprinted in IS. These relations were a factor in naming the new organization.

The Program in Brief in the Independent Socialist (IS) said, “The Independent Socialist Clubs of America are educational and activist organizations ....” [6] The change from the caretaker to the revolutionary perspective, begun in 1968, was crystallized in the Program in Brief in the International Socialist (IS), the successor to the Independent Socialist, in the words, “The IS is an activist organization which seeks to build a mass revolutionary movement in the United states ....” [7] The new organization was not to be a federation of clubs but a centralized revolutionary organization.

The reality was anything but centralism. Everyone was in the IS to change it. The NAC was in New York, but the IS was in Berkeley. There was discipline only in the branches. The leaders of IS refused to be on the NAC, which was treated as an administrative body only. Mike Urquhart was first National Secretary.

The NAC voted not to support the anti-war Days of Rage initiated by SDS on October 8-11 of 1969. The Chicago IS gave it critical support. [8] The NAC criticized the Panthers for their guerillaism. Kit Lyons, the IS editor, refused to publish the criticism since genocide was being conducted against the Panthers. Since the NAC had no authority, Urquhart demanded that the leaders join it.


4. The War and the Strike Wave

As IS predicted in January 1970, this was to be the year of the strike. The biggest strike wave since the Korean War took place. In 1970 twice as much work time was lost in strikes as was lost in 1966. It was 1966 when the postWWII boom reached a high point and the dip toward stagnation began.

The GE strike began in October 1969 and ran into 1970. In a New York RYM meeting, the IS proposed linking the strike to the anti-war movement. Defense Department orders from GE made Meany’s AFL-CIO boycott of GE products a farce. RYM II agreed to give critical support to the IS proposal but its white skin privilege perspective that put third world demands before those of white workers would not enable it to mobilize around the proposal. In Berkeley, IS pushed linking the GE strike to the war issue in the November 14, 1969, Moratorium action there. The National Moratorium Committee was a coalition of the CP dominated New Mobilization Committee and the SWP youth group – Young Socialist Alliance – dominated Student Mobilization Committee. Apart from the demand of immediate withdrawal, the YSA would tolerate no other demands. Thus YSA was opposed to linking the GE strike to the war issue. So the IS proposal was opposed by the YSA within the YSA’s Bay Area Peace Action Council. [9]

The IS saw the arms budget as incompatible with labor gains. It thus called for a work stoppage to end the war. In addition to building the Moratorium and giving leadership the following spring in several places to the student strike movement at the time of the Cambodia invasion, the IS, in its first year, did strike support during the GE strike and was active in the postal strike, where it had one inside member. In 1971, the IS carried its working-class orientation on the war issue into the SWP front National Peace Action Coalition, through the medium of its own Militant Action Caucus.


5. A Strategy for Labor

In 1970 the IS debated the idea of “struggle groups.” In the We Stand For Workers’ Power statement that began to appear in April 1970, in the Workers’ Power supplement to IS, one reads, “We call for independent rank and file workers’ committees to fight when and where the unions refuse to fight.”

The rationale for such groups is outlined in The Unions Under Monopoly Capitalism by Kim Moody and Sy Landy: [10] labor law makes the union responsible for disciplining the ranks by the contract. Thus there is a need for committees “controlled by the workers and independent of the unions.” Workers needed to choose representatives to fight their battles who would not be required to enforce labor discipline on management’s terms. This would shift the balance of power from the company and the union officials to the ranks and would be a step toward workers’ control. Struggle groups would link up between plants and with independent organizations of blacks and women. They would fight for political demands and take political action, whereas unions fight for economic demands and take industrial actions.

Ernie Haberkern for the Reorient Tendency was against the struggle group idea. Draper thought the IS was making a fool of itself with the idea. The Axis Group, by contrast, thought unions irreformable and thus asked for a raiding of unions to build struggle groups. The debate was not occasioned by actual IS activity. It gradually worked itself out into the perspective of rank and file unionism, which did not counterpose the union to rank and file organizing, as the struggle group idea did. The models for the struggle group were the black groups like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers’ organization like DRUM, United Black Brothers at Mahweh, and the Black Panther Caucus at Fremont. But by 1970 DRUM was going back into the union.


6. On the Line in Motor City

The newspaper and the national office moved from Berkeley and New York to Detroit in the summer of 1970. With issue 21 the newspaper was renamed Workers’ Power, which had previously been the name of only a supplement in IS. The newspaper changed from a campus monthly into a labor bi-weekly. At the 1970 convention the Big Red Tendency won on its proposal to consolidate the newspaper and the leadership in Detroit. The industrial Mid-West was to be the arena of IS activity.

In Detroit ISers took jobs in auto factories, with the main focus on the inner city plants with large black work forces. The GM strike of 1970 provoked the call from the IS for strike committees. The struggle group conception was adopted in the absence of evidence of activity on the part of other groups. But during the following year, attention focused on “the emergence of national opposition caucuses in major unions.” The IS then began to work within the United National Caucus of the UAW, and to sponsor UNC members – Al Gardner, Art Fox, Edie Fox, Pete Kelly, and Jordan Sims – as speakers at IS forums.

There was support for Teamsters United Rank and File, formed in 1971. The IS worked with the New Caucus in the American Federation of Teachers, and then in the United Action Caucus which grew out of it. Contact was established with the Rank and File Team in steel. And IS members involved in the New York seven-month telephone strike in ’71-’72 called for the existence of rank and file organizing in order to get a union leadership that wouldn’t hold back workers’ actions.

A program of industrialization was passed as a “good idea” at the 1969 convention. One comrade went to work for Fremont GM. Another went to work in telephone. Some California comrades began to migrate out to Detroit auto work. In 1970 industrialization was seen as a step for developed cadre to take. $ore members were finding their way into auto, telephone, and teaching. At the July 1972, convention of IS industrialization was seen as something to be “intensified” and “rationalized.” Since the IS was short on theoreticians, there was to be no requirement for all to industrialize. Auto, trucking, steel, telephone, public employment, and teaching were listed as priorities in 1972. In 1070 the paper had a regular column describing what it was like in an auto plant– John Weber’s Life on the Line. An overview of labor and its problems with collective bargaining was provided by John Single’s regular column Pass It On. All of this was part of the effort to make the IS an organization that took seriously the perspective that the working class was key to the overthrow of capitalism. By September 1972, the Transformation Caucus wanted to go even further: making industrial work “the focus of our organization’s activities can be a step toward making the IS a working class organization.” [11] By 1973 this had become de facto policy in the IS on industrialization.

The Conference on Rank and Pile Labor Revolt held in Chicago in May of 1972 crystallized the national rank and file unionism perspective that was being worked out through participation in struggles during the preceding year and one half. Art Fox, a former SWPer and a leader of the UNC, emphasized the importance of the falling rate of profit as against over-productionist theories developed during the post-war period of boom. [12] Joel Geier, National Secretary of IS, called for united white and black struggle in the working clam. Brian Mackenzie, a leader of United Action in Local 1101 of CWA and an ISer, spoke about the emergence of national opposition caucuses which were going beyond the limited reform groups of the past. He said, “To speak politically and programmatically to the new rank and file leadership being trained in the struggle today is the major job of socialists in the working class.” [13]

By the mid-’70s, the period of local and national rank and file opposition caucuses was, with a few exceptions, coming to an end. This objective circumstance led the IS even further into union affairs than was implied by the approach of local and national rank and file opposition caucuses. The swing from struggle groups to local and national opposition groups was, then, to be completed, beginning around 1975, with a program of serving the needs of internal union reform. Each of these conceptions corresponded to a changing reality in the work place. That reality produced black struggle groups, opposition groups, and union reform movements. But the methodology used by the IS in arriving at each of these conceptions was similar. It was a methodology of adapting its work to the imperatives of building the kinds of groups the circumstances were producing. It was not a methodology of maintaining a consistent interventionist thrust geared to the more fundamental reality of stagnation in the economy. That thrust should be directed at building among worker militants a political consciousness that is socialist at its core. It is possible to build this consciousness in a period of stagnation such as the one that began in the late 60s. The imperatives of building struggle groups, local and national rank and file opposition caucuses, and union reform movements are not to subordinate the imperatives of developing political consciousness. Socialists should participate in each of these kinds of organization in different periods, but not in a way that prevents them from building political consciousness.


7. The Struggle for a Single Tendency Organization

There were six tendencies at the 1970 IS convention. By 1973 the IS had become what appeared to be a single tendency organization. Effective action requires loyalty and is hampered by factions whose aim is to wreck and split But the fear of crippling factionalism became so great that the political life of the organization was endangered. By 1975 monolith ism rather than factionalism needed to be challenged.

The Ann Arbor group led by Eric Chester resigned in the Fall of 1970. In practice this group was concerned with student-power politics. Around thirty people went with it, but they went on to nothing. They described themselves in terms of Rosa Luxemburg’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks. However, their criticisms seemed more akin to the Menshevik Martov’s. They saw the dictatorship of the proletariat as leading to Stalinism. They were against centralism. They were against a definitive break with the petty bourgeoisie, and hence for the kind of transformation of society that would not split off the petty bourgeoisie.

In January 1971, the Hal Draper group in Berkeley resigned. They formed ISCO with the aim of getting out publications to explain unions to socialists and socialists to unions. The defense Draper gave of unions in the fight around struggle groups in the IS left open the possibility of defending bureaucrats. The struggle group idea contained the valid core of independent action by the rank and file. But Draper’s criticism was on the basis of trade union orthodoxy. Draper was still tied to the Berkeley SP. Anne Draper, as an Amalgamated Clothing Workers organizer, was in the position of defending the Buy American slogan of that union. David Friedman, another ISCOer, became a union official.

Stalinophobia had carried over from the ISL and SP to define a tendency led by Jo Ann Landy and Mike Shute. When they were expelled in January 1972 they formed Socialists for Independent Politics. Jo Ann Landy was against the victory of the NLF. Though for a Bolshevik party, she and her group had distributed literature to the anti-war movement against the victory of the NLF, while she was still in IS. For refusal to accept discipline on this point the group was expelled. The group was against the move to Detroit, saying it would bureaucratize the IS and suppress the discussion of important views. They were opposed to industrialization. The SIP wanted the IS to allow unrestricted discussion of views; views could come up year after year despite their rejection by majorities at conventions.

The expulsion of the Revolutionary Tendency took place in July 1973. The group was led by Sy Landy and Ron Tabor. In the spring of 1973 the debate took off from an attempt to define the relation of the IS to the Miners For Democracy in the UMW. The focus on MFD was doubly academic since Miller had already defeated Boyle, ending the functioning of MFD, and the IS had no one in the mines. The faction fight was bitter and it became obvious that the minority was bent on a split. The RT, with about 85 people was expelled for being a “disloyal tendency.” [14] After the expulsion the RT became the Revolutionary Socialist League, whose paper is Torch.

The RT contended that the IS was adaptationist: the IS geared its politics to the ups and downs of class consciousness. The IS failed to recognize that the period was, and had been since the early part of the century, the period of capitalism’s death agony. There was only one consistent and effective set of politics for the death agony, the Trotskyist Transitional Program of 1938. Without the Transitional Program [4*] the IS, as a propaganda group, was limited to a mere critique of capitalism. The critical support to be given to MFD is the support a rope gives a hanging man: Miller & Co. are to be exposed as collaborationists who in the end will have to attack the miners, which of course they did. The fundamental “counter-position of the Marxist program to all other programs, revolutionary leadership to all other leadership, must never be hidden. [15] Instead of attempting to address itself to the revolutionary layer in the working class, in order to build a revolutionary leadership, the IS has absorbed itself in “‘galvanizing’ mass struggle on the basis of reform and democratic demands and adapting its program to fit the illusions of the elements it has sought to ‘galvanize’.”

The indictment and the cure must be distinguished. The RT rightly indicted the IS for a tendency toward adaptation. It connected this to the support given Reuther in 1947 by the WP and to the failure of the ISC to pose a socialist alternative within the PFP. Being on the look out for the alliance that will build a mass struggle symptomizes the view that socialists will win support because of the organizations they build and not because of the politics they illustrate in struggle.

Granting all this, the cure was not the RT’s tactic of “counter-position.” The RT called for putting forward the Transitional Program as an alternative to the program of MFD; only in this way could the miners see that the reformist leadership will vacillate and finally betray them. The RT gave critical support to MFD only to have this possibility of counterposing the Transitional Program to the program of MFD. In the Women’s Movement, the RT offered a similar procedure: expose the middle class character of the movement and get out of it with the revolutionary feminists. [16]

For a tiny group, such a tactic of counter-position is a blueprint for remaining outside every working-class upsurge, small or large. Of course, if the counter- position is made on the basis of real class strength then it may well be correct. Moreover, the idea of counterposing the Transitional Program to every reformist movement rests on the incorrect belief that the working class can be moved to the left of its reformist leaders simply by the magic of a program.

The way ahead was neither to practice the art of “galvanizing mass struggle on the basis of reform, as the IS did, nor to courageously “counterpose a socialist alternative every time a reformist shows his/her head, as the RSL did.




1*. The section of RYM that was soon to become RYM II developed a working class perspective not dissimilar from WSA’s.

2*. Mike Klonsky, SDS National Secretary in 1968-69 and RYM II leader, came to be the leader of the October League. Robert Avakian, the RU leader, supported Klonsky at Chicago.

3*. A split at the Thanksiving, 1969, RYM II meeting led to the division between RU and two groups which in 1972 merged to form OL.

4*. The main demands of the Transitional Program were opening the books of the corporations, a sliding scale of hours and wages, a workers and farmers government, nationalization without indemnification, and expropriations of the banks to provide cheap credit.



1. Geier and Spector, IS5, June-July ’68.

2. Michael Parker, SDS: Copping Out of American Life, NP7, No.4, Oct. ’69.

3. Jack Weinberg and Kit Lyons. SDS at the Crossroads, IS10, May ’69.

4. IS10, May ’69, p.2.

5. See the excellent pamphlet-length analysis of the Chicago SDS convention by Jack Weinberg and Jack Gerson, SDS and the Movement: Where Do We Go From Here?, IS12, Sept. ’69.

6. IS12, Sept. ’69.

7. IS13, Oct. ’69.

8. IS14, Dec. ’69, p.5.

9. IS16, Feb. ’70.

10. Moody and Landy, IS19, May ’70.

11. Political Statement of the Transformation Caucus, IS Bulletin 29, 9-1-72.

12. See Art Fox’s pamphlet The Deep Roots of Inflation, Action Press, 1973.

13. See the report on the conference in WP58-59, June ’72.

14. The Split in the IS, WP80, Aug. ’73.

15. Statement of the RT, IS Bulletin 39, 5-10-73.

16. IS Bulletin 39, 5-10-73.


Last updated on 9.1.2002