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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Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 82 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 47 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 19 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.