Sore Winners: The Third Camp and the Legacy of American Stalinism

by David Duhalde

There are facts that only socialists believe are not common knowledge.  So, for the record, the Soviet Union was no paradise.  It morphed into a bureaucratic tyranny and abandoned the democratic rights necessary for any socialist society.

It also no longer exists.  

So if Stalinism has failed and been abandoned everywhere it was implemented, where does this leave the Third Camp socialists who were critical of both the Soviet Union and Western capitalism? It’s a group (with which I identify) that should feel vindicated. But more often than not, most within it have become something of a “sore winner.”

Consider the response by a vocal minority to Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara’s obituary of Pete Seeger.  Sunkara’s less than 700-word article was critical of big-C communism, while attempting to redeem the legacy of its American rank and file. It  was well received and widely shared among the general public, but some deemed it insufficiently anti-Stalinist and ahistorical.  Dan LaBotz’s “Learn—Like Seeger Did—To Sing Another Tune” took such a stance.

LaBotz’s criticisms of Sunkara’s two paragraphs on Seeger’s party membership amounts to a nearly deadpan replica of Joe Glazer’s sectarian folk songs against the CPUSA. Those tunes, immortalized in Glazer’s “Ballads for Sectarians” album, humorously tackle the horrific betrayals of socialism that were committed by Stalin and his followers.  These tracks, however, do not pretend that only the Third Camp had a monopoly on grasping communist crimes.

The truth is that the vast majority of Americans have only a negative view of communism, even if they are open in certain ways to other forms of socialism. Certainly, many of them have no idea that the CPUSA was a force for social justice such as the civil rights and labor movements.  The Left needs a nuanced view of our history; one that can include that people praising an overall flawed institution for often doing good is acceptable, too.

The lesson was made clear to me after watching “I’m Not Rappaport.”  This movie, which paired the legendary actors Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis, partly focused on Nat Moyer’s (played by Matthau) participation in the labor movement as a communist.  After the movie, I made a dismissive comment about “old communists.”  My mother, a true small-d democrat and opponent of the Soviet system, scolded me.  She reminded me that communists made many sacrifices for social justice. 

New Politics never seems to have sufficiently learned that lesson. 

Today, we shouldn’t just lump 1940’s CPUSA members together like Tea Party activists might do with us and President Obama.  We also shouldn’t fall into what I call the “Irving Howe road to socialism”: the anarchic pastime of replacing a call to build a revolutionary party with a denunciation of Stalinism.

Just as most Americans wouldn’t believe the Party did any good, many would be confused about why some people are so bothered by two small paragraphs in an obituary.  As I wrote for DSA, it is critical that the radical left spend more time analyzing what we can do to build a movement today than arguing about unchangeable facts of history. 

We don’t need to make it harder to recruit people to the socialist movement by being so visibly hung up on history that has little impact on our work.  For the first time in my life, this is an exciting time to be a radical.  There are alternative forms of well-publicized organizing, younger and exciting intellectual publications like Jacobin, and a waning tolerance for redbaiting.  Why attenuate our recruiting potential with esoteric sectarian feuds? 

I think we should learn from both Pete Seeger and Joe Glazer.  Then maybe people can stop being like Bill Bailey.

 david-duhalde.jpgDavid Duhalde is the treasurer of Boston DSA and a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.



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