The Magazine

Socialists of America, Disunited

Why the Revolution never happened here

Aug 28, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 47 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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Although Isserman offers glimpses into Harrington's personal life, The Other American is mostly a political biography, and it reveals as much about the author as about the subject. When he left the Catholic Church, Harrington joined up with a socialist group known as the Shachtmanites. Max Shachtman had been a principal protege of Trotsky's, but had broken with him over the question of how to define the Soviet Union. To Trotsky it was a "degenerated workers' state," meaning that whatever its faults, the USSR was still somehow preferable to the capitalist states. Shachtman, on the other hand, concluded that the USSR was neither capitalist nor socialist but had hatched a new social system, unforeseen by Marx, "bureaucratic collectivism."

Although the argument was scholastic, it enabled the Shachtmanites to appreciate that communism, or "Stalinism," as they preferred to call it, was worse -- by any measure of humane values -- than capitalism. Shachtman was a spellbinding lecturer, and his periodic lectures (like Castro's, of enormous length) brought home to his radical audiences the evils of the Soviet system. Stalin had murdered not only more people but more Communists than Hitler, Shachtman would explain, rattling off numbers to prove it. He held a famous 1951 debate with Earl Browder, who had been expelled from the Communist party but whose loyal following believed that he would be back at the helm of American communism as soon as the misunderstanding was cleared up in Moscow. Shachtman listed the fates of leaders of various Communist parties behind the Iron Curtain who had been purged in the same twist of party line that had brought down Browder. Then he pointed to Browder and intoned: "There, but for an accident of geography, sits a ghost." Browder, so the story is told, turned ashen and failed to rise from his chair. There was also mirth in Shachtman's polemics: After Khrushchev's speech, Shachtman observed that Stalin "has been officially demoted from the office of greatest, wisest, and most adored leader in recorded history to the lesser office of maniacal mass-murderer, and some of his other improprieties and errors have also been registered."

Under such tutoring, the Shachtmanites became fierce anti-Communists, as did other veterans of the Left: the followers of Norman Thomas and Jay Lovestone, and such individual writers as Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, George Orwell, and Arthur Koestler. Some had started out as Communists, others as Trotskyists or socialists. Some became conservatives, others remained on the non-Communist left. Because they had known the Communists from the inside or as competitors for influence, they more easily saw through the Communists' deceptions. And because they were radicals or former radicals themselves, they fought them with a zealotry that ordinary liberals or conservatives could not match.

Harrington's involvement with the Shachtmanites provides the main theme for Isserman. In his treatment, the tragedy of Harrington's career was that he allowed himself to be influenced by anti-Communists. When the New Left arose in the 1960s, the socialists, Harrington included, found themselves at odds with these younger radicals, who opposed anti-communism. A decade later, however, Harrington formed his own group, apologized abjectly for having criticized the New Left, effected a merger with one of the remaining New Left groups (the New American Movement), and ended up an advocate for Tanzania's socialist dictator Julius Nyerere and Nicaragua's Sandinistas. If only he had done all this earlier, laments Isserman, Harrington might have helped to build a more vibrant Left.

For the most part Isserman is coy about what underlies his criticisms of the Shachtmanites. Rather than lambaste them explicitly for being anti-Communist, he taxes them with being "sectarian." It was "sectarian" to criticize pro-communism in the New Left. Likewise when Harrington was a member of the Shachtmanites or the Socialist party, he was "sectarian," according to Isserman, but when he split to found his own little group, then he was no longer sectarian but the victim of sectarianism.

What makes Isserman's gambit transparent is that the very term "Shachtmanite" is Isserman's epithet for anti-Communist. The Shachtmanites finally disbanded in 1958 to join the Socialist party, abandoning the last vestiges of their distinct ideological line.

Most of what Isserman writes about occured after this. Any number of those singled out in Isserman's book as "Shachtmanites" had never been among them -- including Penn Kemble, Bayard Rustin, and me. (I was ten when Shachtmanism folded.) To be sure, when in the mid-1960s I joined the Socialist party, I loved Shachtman's lectures, but what I learned from them had nothing to do with the Trotskyite arcana that had once been the substance of Shachtmanism. It had everything to do with the evil nature of communism.

It is for this that he is hated, and not only by Isserman. In a lengthy review of Isserman's book in the New Republic, sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote that in joining the Shachtmanites, Harrington had stooped "to the lowest and the most counterproductive form . . . of sectarian politics of which the left is capable." And Wolfe echoed with embellishment Isserman's canard that the late Tom Kahn, a one-time Shachtmanite, had written a speech for AFL-CIO President George Meany that crudely mocked homosexuals. Since Kahn was a homosexual himself, Wolfe and Isserman portray him as pathetic and opportunistic. But there is no reason to believe that Kahn wrote those lines, and Isserman presents none. What Kahn did do was serve as wordsmith and point man in the AFL-CIO's legendary crusade against communism, and this apparently makes him fair game for such an underhanded attack.

Wolfe, who has since moved rightward, wrote as recently as the early 1980s:

In the Soviet Union the means of production are not in private hands, planning is the most prominent feature of economic life, there has been a marked tendency toward greater equality, and from time to time the Soviets act in support of socialist revolutions around the world. . . . None of these advances, and advances they are, would have been possible without the consolidation of political power to expand economically and the consolidation of military power to ward off a threat to those gains.

Both Wolfe and Isserman were New Leftists, and like other New Leftists, they were often sympathetic toward Communist regimes when these were stacked up against America. In this, they were guilty of moral blindness. These days, with the Berlin Wall a memory, everyone is anti-Communist, and those who muffed this fundamental issue have rarely been called to account. But apparently they cannot leave it there.

American Communists liked to call themselves "premature anti-fascists." It was characteristic of their self-admiration and their mendacity, since for the nearly two years of the Stalin-Hitler pact they were practically the only people in America who were not anti-fascist. Perhaps it is time to coin the term "premature anti-Communist," to describe all of those -- "Shachtmanites" and others -- who fought tooth-and-nail to defeat the Evil Empire when it was riding high. That seems to be a sin that the likes of Isserman cannot forgive.

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is writing a book on the rise and fall of socialism, which will be published next year by Encounter Books.