Among the YPSL's
To the Editor:
Having been a member of Social Democrats USA in the late 1980’s, and having also counted Penn Kemble as a friend, I was moved by Joshua Muravchik’s memorial to him [“Comrades,” January]. But I would point out a small error, and two larger matters on which I think he misstates important points.
Mr. Muravchik refers to Penn’s “own Marxist mentor, Alex Garber,” as having “grown up as a member of the Olerites, an eponymous Communist splinter group whose ranks at its height may barely have reached double digits.” A couple of sentences later he refers to Garber as a “Communist schismatic.” The group was actually called the “Oehlerites,” after their leader Hugo Oehler, and they were not schismatics from official Communism but one of many split-offs from the Trotskyist movement.
The positions of the Oehlerites were extremely puristic, to the point that they attacked other Trotskyists for having sold out to the bourgeoisie—and this in the 1930’s! The group’s only surviving document of consequence is Hugo Oehler’s pamphlet Barricades in Barcelona, which covers the same events described in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia but in a much more exaggerated and sectarian style. If the group had any virtue at all, it was that its members positively loathed Stalinism.
More significantly, Mr. Muravchik suggests that Max Shachtman, the former Trotsky associate, had ceased being a “Trotskyite” many years before he recruited some of Mr. Muravchik’s “comrades” to his brand of socialism in the late 1950’s. This is arguable. It is true that Shachtman broke with Trotsky in 1940, and had given up his revolutionary political stand by 1962. But Shachtman supported the Trotskyist concept of a “Fourth International” for a decade after his rupture with the founder. It is also true—and something of an irony, considering how many of Mr. Muravchik’s comrades have supported U.S. military intervention overseas in recent years—that Shachtman’s group strongly opposed American involvement in World War II. Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League (ISL) was included in the U.S. Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations until the late 1950’s.
Shachtman still met politically with an “official” Trotskyist, Murry Weiss of the Socialist Workers’ party, in 1957. Although Shachtman’s group produced the array of social democrats described and memorialized by Mr. Muravchik, its younger veterans also included some of the most extreme radicals of the 1960’s and after. Examples include Shane Mage, leader of the tiny Workers’ League, and Jim Robertson, founder of the even tinier Spartacist League, which took a sharp turn toward Stalinism.
In sum, the issue of when Shachtman ceased to be a Trotskyist, and what the very term “Trotskyism” means in a broad historical sense (as opposed to a sectarian or self-interested one), remains open and neglected. It is part of the peculiar legacy of the 1960’s that the experience of non-Stalinist radicals in the U.S. and globally has almost never been significantly examined by American historians.
Mr. Muravchik contributes to this problem when he elides a great deal of the complicated if perhaps ultimately irrelevant history of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), of which he was national chairman from 1968 to 1973. He describes YPSL as “the youth section of the Socialist party of America that had been founded in the early 20th century by Eugene Debs and was led for many decades by Norman Thomas.” This is a bit like the common descriptions of the Democratic party of Senators Edward Kennedy and Joseph Lieberman as the party of Jefferson and Jackson, with no acknowledgement of intervening controversies. Such condensation is a lesser matter when it involves major American institutions, about which many citizens understand the historical basics, than when it touches on small radical groups whose history is not well known.
To the Editor:
Reading Joshua Muravchik’s “Comrades,” I was reminded of the old slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty”—or, don’t acknowledge that your own ideas may owe something to theirs. Mr. Muravchik in his article seems to have fallen prey to this latter piece of 60’s hubris.
Outside of acknowledging Alex Garber’s influence on Penn Kemble, Mr. Muravchik gives the impression that Kemble, Tom Kahn, and Paul Feldman sprang fully grown from the head of Zeus and invented the idea of social democracy in America. He acknowledges that the latter two had been “devotees of a former Trotskyist named Max Shachtman,” but makes short shrift of Shachtman’s central role in the formation of their ideas and his continued influence on them until his death.
He also dismisses the centrality of Shachtman’s ideas to the Socialist party, the Social Democratic Federation, and the Social Democrats USA (often referred to as the “Right Shachtmanites” by their Old and New Left detractors). As for Mr. Muravchik’s own Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), he writes that “although Shachtman was one of the elder statesmen who occasionally made stirring speeches to us, no YPSL of my generation was a Shachtmanite. What is more, our mentors, Paul and Tom, had come under Shachtman’s sway years after he himself had ceased to be a Trotsykite.”
In fact, Shachtman was much more than a maker of stirring speeches. Yes, the YPSL’s were not Trotskyists, largely because, as Mr. Muravchik notes, Shachtman himself had long since ceased to be one. He broke with Trotsky and formed the Worker’s party in 1940 over the issue of the nature of the Soviet Union—the central issue on the American Left and the one upon which the splits and factional schisms among socialist groups were largely based.
Shachtman’s insistence that the Soviet Union was not socialist but “bureaucratic collectivist”—having a new ruling class with a totalitarian and imperialist nature—contributed greatly to the principled anti-Communism of the various groups of which he and his followers were a part, a stance to which the YPSL’s became heir. The group around Shachtman came to believe that the Stalinist nations were far worse than Western capitalism, that democratic socialists should side with the U.S. in international conflicts against the Soviet Union or its proxies, and that they should be (to use Herman Kahn’s phrase) “aggressive democrats,” seeking not only to counter totalitarianism but actively to spread democracy.
This included an obligation to counter tyranny early on, and not repeat the mistakes that individuals and governments of their generation had made by appeasing Nazism before World War II and Communism during the cold war. Hence their support of the Vietnam war, in which they were joined by their allies within organized labor, principally the leadership of the AFL-CIO.
By the early 60’s, Shachtman’s group had also made a major practical shift, by abandoning its third-party election runs in favor of working within the Democratic party to influence its policies. One of the fruits of this shift was Shachtman’s encouraging of Kahn, Kemble, Carl Gershman, and others to engage in politics and the civil-rights movement, which, as Mr. Muravchik details, they did effectively. I would take nothing away from these individuals in their brilliant application of the principles they inherited, but it did not occur in a vacuum.
To the Editor:
I very much appreciated Joshua Muravchik’s tribute to the late Penn Kemble, especially his evocation of the neat and elegant young socialist among the company of his rather more conventionally radical comrades (almost all of whom by now, of course, are neither radical, nor young, nor—despite what one or two of them might continue to claim—even faintly socialist). Since for a brief part of this story I, too, was among Mr. Muravchik’s comrades, I hope I may be forgiven for offering a correction to one part of his account. I think it is of some interest in itself, and throws an interesting light on the relation of Penn and his YPSL-Social Democratic comrades to the real world of American politics.
Contrary to Mr. Muravchik’s account, Penn was not the one who dreamed up the organization called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM). The credit for this, if in the end credit it be, belongs to Ben Wattenberg. In 1972, before the presidential election of that year, it was easy to see that George McGovern and his leftist supporters were headed for a major defeat. Thus, reasoned Ben, after the election would be an ideal time to bring together the two leading groups of centrist Democrats, the supporters of Hubert Humphrey and the supporters of Henry Jackson, and retake the party. Actually, it would not be unfair to say that CDM was first organized in my apartment, where Ben, my husband Norman Podhoretz, and I drew up a founding statement whose slogan was “Come Home, Democrats.”
After making a bit of a splash with a full-page ad in the New York Times, we settled down to the work of figuring out exactly how we would function. Ben had asked Penn to be CDM’s executive director, and, if memory serves, we spent our first several meetings on the question of how, or whether, to write our by-laws. Since most, or perhaps all—I no longer remember—of our financing came from the AFL-CIO, our first officially agreed-upon act in 1973 was to issue a statement expressing our disapproval of President Richard Nixon’s budget. After this, we had some annual banquets at which we bestowed honors upon some of our more worthy members. At some point, the directorship of CDM passed to Mr. Muravchik.
By the time Jimmy Carter ascended to the presidency in 1976, it would in all honesty have to be said that CDM had utterly failed in its mission to become a counterweight to the Left in the Democratic party. In the meantime, however, we had become a kind of community, not very large but not entirely without a voice. And by 1980, most of us, though not all, marched ourselves cheerfully into the camp of Ronald Reagan.
After CDM, as before it, Penn had a variety of jobs and projects, all undertaken with his unswerving passion to increase the spread of democratic rights throughout the world. It seems fair to say, in deepest sadness, that we will never look upon his like again.
New York City
To the Editor:
Joshua Muravchik’s eulogy for Penn Kemble is a fitting tribute. Though I found it for the most part a wonderful stroll down memory lane with people I consider old friends and coalition partners, I was disappointed that he chose to lump me and my fellow “followers of [Reverend] Sun Myung Moon” together with other political “immoderates” like the Jewish Defense League and the disciples of Lyndon LaRouche.
Mr. Muravchik knows better. He and his YPSL colleagues kept real extremists like those at arm’s length. But from the late 60’s through the late 70’s, the YPSL’s made common cause with us in the Unification Church many times, and precisely because they understood that, despite our quirky religion, we were not political extremists. Causes that I participated in with YPSL ranged from supporting Henry Jackson for the Democratic presidential nomination to opposing the Stalinists on the war in Vietnam, blocking the leftist crowd from taking over the United States Youth Council, educating Americans about Soviet oppression of intellectual dissidents, supporting Israel, and working to elect moderate Democrats to the Washington, D.C. city council. Later, we Unificationists, just like the YPSL neoconservatives, tended to close ranks with the Republicans.
Those shoulder-by-shoulder battles with the YPSL’s are precious memories for me, and it saddens me to see an old comrade forget so easily.
International Coalition for Religious Freedom
Falls Church, Virginia
To the Editor:
It has long been nearly impossible to keep track of all the peregrinations and permutations of the American political Left in the 20th century. As the glory days of the Lovestoneites, Shachtmanites, Trotskyites, and the rest fade further from view with the passing of time, it becomes harder still. Many thanks, then, to Joshua Muravchik for providing a clear and moving portrait of the core group at the center of one of the most important of those factions, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), and, in particular, of the late, great, admired, and much missed Penn Kemble.
Contrary to what Mr. Muravchik suggests, Penn did not quite abandon his New York City activities after relocating to Washington. I had the good fortune to work closely with him on a number of projects for Mayor Ed Koch, who in the 1980’s seemed to be the last, lonely voice of anti-Communism within the Democratic party. By the middle of the decade, the battle between Left and Right was being waged over the spread of Soviet-backed, Castro-style juntas in Central America. Penn spearheaded an effort to provide moral and political support to the Nicaraguan contras, Costa Rican President Óscar Arias Sánchez, and other proponents of democracy in the region. Spurred on by Penn, Mayor Koch took on a considerable political risk by leading a large delegation to the region to back the “small d” democrats and raise their profile with the American public.
The dream held by Penn and others of restoring to the party of Harry Truman, Scoop Jackson, and Ed Koch the courage to fight totalitarians and support democracy movements is even more fleeting today—incredibly, after the end of the cold war—than it was 20 years ago. But abandoning that dream should in no way diminish respect for its chief advocate and avatar. May Penn Kemble rest in peace.
Jonathan R. Cohen
Joshua Muravchik writes:
I thank Stephen Schwartz for correcting my misspelling of Oehler and for offering other details about the Oehlerites well beyond my knowledge. However, his point that Oehler’s group was not a Communist split-off but a Trostskyist split-off strikes me as, well, splitting hairs. The Trotskyists of that era were themselves a Communist splinter. Oehler had begun as a member of the Communist party, then split from it along with other Trotskyists, and then, together with a few others, split from the Trotskyists to form his own group.
Mr. Schwartz’s encyclopedic knowledge of this stuff is admirable, but it seems to get in the way of linear thinking when he argues about the relationships among Max Shachtman, Trotskyism, and my own “comrades.” That Shachtman had once been a Trotskyist is hardly at issue. My point was that by the time Tom Kahn and Paul Feldman became his disciples, he was no longer one, and was soon to disband his party and urge its members to follow him in joining the Socialist party. He had, he explained, reconsidered the entire Communist experience back to its roots in 1917, and had concluded that the creation of the Communist movement by Lenin as a split-off from social democracy had been a “historical mistake.” In this view of his, no trace of Trotskyism remained. (By engaging in this argument I realize that I, too, become vulnerable to the charge of splitting hairs, but since the label “Trotskyist” has gained new currency as a slur on neoconservatives, demonstrating its falsehood seems to me more than a scholastic exercise.)
Mr. Schwartz also taxes me with “elid[ing] a great deal of the complicated if perhaps ultimately irrelevant history of the . . . YPSL.” For this I feel confident I have the reader’s gratitude.
Ellen Heyman accuses me of suggesting that my comrades and I “sprang fully grown from the head of Zeus.” If I gave any such impression, I wish to withdraw it. But the real problem here, I think, is that Ellen Heyman’s view of our paternity is shaped by her own distinct history. She has told me that she grew up in a Shachtmanite home. Like her, I too was very influenced by the ideas of my parents; but unlike hers, mine were not Shachtmanites but rather devotees of the Socialist party of Norman Thomas. The same was true for Penn Kemble and indeed for more among my other comrades than those who claimed a Shachtmanite lineage. So if I have failed to acknowledge a paternal debt, it may not be to the pater she has in mind.
I did record, however, that Kahn and Feldman, who were a few years older than my cohort, had been Shachtmanites themselves, and Ellen Heyman would be right to say that Shachtman’s influence on them was strong and enduring. She is not right, however, when she makes it sound as if Shachtman were the inventor of Left anti-Communism. There was a long, albeit uneven anti-Communist tradition among social democrats in many countries, including the U.S., dating all the way back to the time when Shachtman himself was still a Communist. Although Shachtman’s speeches brilliantly evoked the horrors of Communism, his signature theory of “bureaucratic collectivism” never meant much to me or, as far as I know, to my fellows.
The distortion in Ellen Heyman’s lens becomes especially evident when she suggests that Shachtman’s influence is what led us to the civil-rights movement. I was active in that movement years before I ever heard of Shachtman, and again the same was true for Kemble as it was for Carl Gershman. As with others of our generation, it was the civil-rights struggle that led us into activism, where we eventually encountered Shachtman—not the other way around. We all regarded him as a wonderful orator and a great thinker, but his influence on us was not as momentous as it may have been on Ellen Heyman or those close to her.
I have taken much instruction from Midge Decter over the years, and am willing to be corrected on the subject of the genesis of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority. But I think I was not as far from the mark as she suggests when I wrote of Penn Kemble that CDM was one of the organizations “largely of his . . . invention.”
It is said that defeat is an orphan; but CDM, although thoroughly defeated within the Democratic party as Midge Decter aptly points out, had many fathers. The prime mover was indeed Ben Wattenberg. But the idea for it, as he notes in a forthcoming memoir, had been suggested to him by his sometime co-author, Richard Scammon. To judge by Wattenberg’s account, moreover, Midge Decter has understated her own hand in CDM’s founding statement, of which he says she was the principal author.
Still, before it was decided even to draft such a statement, a small group had been meeting quietly in Washington to concoct the new organization. Wattenberg was the convener, and Kemble was one of the handful of participants. There are no minutes of those meetings, but since Penn had already created more organizations than anyone else involved, my guess is that his was an influential voice in the deliberations. It was also Penn more than anyone else who had the long, close ties to organized labor that brought in the financial backing that Midge Decter mentions. He was chosen early on to be the staff person for the nascent en- terprise, and from the time CDM was formally launched, with Penn as its executive director, he largely gave it its direction. The maiden action (which did not enthuse everyone) of assailing Nixon’s budget bore the earmarks of Penn’s tactical style—zigging Left to zag Right—just as clearly as CDM’s founding manifesto bore those of Midge Decter’s distinctive prose.
I am reminded by Dan Fefferman’s charming letter of why he was my favorite among the followers of Reverend Moon with whom we YPSL’s did from time to time make common cause. I recall with particular relish a “rally against North Vietnamese imperialism” staged jointly by the YPSL and the Freedom Leadership Foundation (FLF), as these “Unificationists” called themselves, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. That took moxie, which is precisely what led us to ally with them in such ventures. Their virtue, as I saw it, was not, as Mr. Fefferman puts it, that they were “not extremists,” but rather that they shared our militant anti-Communism. I did not think of them or of us as “moderates.”
Perhaps the reason Mr. Fefferman is so sensitive on the question of who is a “moderate” and who an “extremist” is that Reverend Moon has, in recent years, found allies far more outré than us young socialists: notably, Louis Farrakhan. In 1998, the Unification Church hosted a visit to South Korea by a delegation from the Nation of Islam during which Farrakhan proclaimed Moon “immortal.” In 2000 the two groups joined forces to sponsor a “Million Family March,” a sequel to Farrakhan’s 1995 “Million Man March.” Mr. Fefferman bristles at the imputation that he and his co-religionists were or are anything but centrists; methinks he doth protest too much.
I thank Jonathan R. Cohen for his generous words. But if I may quibble, the collaboration between Penn and Ed Koch was a matter not so much of Penn’s continuing his “New York activities” as of Koch’s continuing his national and international interests even after leaving the U.S. Congress and becoming mayor of New York—which is much to his credit.
In private correspondence, Rachelle Horowitz, an old comrade who was at Brooklyn College with Paul Feldman and was an eyewitness to the event in question, has informed me that I erred in writing that Paul had once told a date to “put out or get out” atop a Ferris wheel. The venue, rather, was the apex of Coney Island’s terrifying Cyclone roller coaster. My version understated his tactical genius.