Reflections on the Cochranites

I want to elaborate a bit on Sol Dollinger's posts, since their subject matter far transcends their importance in American Trotskyist history, as important as that is. I would argue that the so-called Cochranites were not only the very first to recognize the new realities of American politics in conditions of post-WWII affluence, but also the first to put forward an alternative to the kind of sectarianism that had not only characterized the American Trotskyist movement, but all such parties that had been forged in the loony crucible of Zinoviev's 1924 "Bolshevization" Comintern.

I first learned of the Cochranites not long after I had joined the SWP, back in 1967. As one of a few dozen new recruits to the NYC branch, the leadership had decided to put us through a special intensive training program where veteran party leaders would essentially present party history as a series of brilliant strategic successes in the external mass movement, while accompanied by ruthless but necessary disciplinary measures against petty-bourgeois oppositions in the party. As the son of a fruit store owner, I was anxious to get purified through these classes since carrying around the stigmata of the petty-bourgeoisie would be too much to bear in such august proletarian environs. I had never met a real factory worker in my life before joining the SWP and stood in awe of men and women now in their fifties who had actually worked in a steel mill or auto plant. Coming from farm country, I had never even seen one.

Among them, there was nobody with more impeccable credentials than Frank Lovell, who had moved to NYC from Detroit that year in order to write about trade union affairs for the Militant newspaper. Frank, like many SWP leaders, was not quite what he appeared. Although he had spent decades in the factories, he was actually a U. Cal/Berkeley graduate with a degree in philosophy, just like me. Frank gave a class on the Cochranites, who were the last major split from the party.

As Frank explained it, the Cochranites were mostly factory workers who had gotten embourgeoisified by the postwar boom. Although they had done yeoman work in the 1930s, they became bought off by rising wages and the craft union outlook of the bureaucracy. In addition, they had made an "unprincipled combination" with Ernest Mandel and Michel Raptis, aka "Pablo", the European leaders who were convinced that the CP's might shift to the left under the pressures of the cold war. This was an "unprincipled combination" because the Cochranites were not really that interested in the CPUSA. Years later I discovered that this was not quite accurate, but more about that momentarily.

After becoming a hardened SWP'er ready to vanquish all foes internally and externally, I was dispatched up to Boston to help organize the faction fight against Larry Trainor, a 1930s veteran who had developed differences with the party over what was described a "detour" from the trade unions into the student movement. Trainor was uncomfortable with the student milieu and thought that new recruits should not only go through classes like I did, but also get factory jobs as a prophylactic against petty-bourgeois ideological deviations.

Peter Camejo, who was the leader of the faction opposed to Larry, assigned me to do a report on the Cochranites which when finally presented went over with a bang. I explained that there is no way to inoculate people against petty-bourgeois deviations, since they are everywhere in society. Look at the Cochranites, I argued. Nobody was more blue-collar than them, but they too had sold out. Mind you, this without having ever read a single article written by Bert Cochran or any of his co-thinkers.

After I left the SWP, I began exploring alternatives to sectarianism. While initially impressed with the Sandinista movement's ability to translate Marxist ideas into the national idiom, I eventually discovered that similar efforts had first taken shape in the United States in the 1950s. The most tangible results were the weekly newspaper The National Guardian and the Monthly Review. Both of these publications were attempts to develop a Marxism that embodied American traditions and which would avoid the sterile sectarianism that had marked both the Stalinist and Trotskyist left. In the course of getting to know the Monthly Review in depth, I would discover that one of the central Cochranite figures, Harry Braverman, was key to its initial success.

The January 1999 Monthly Review is devoted to Harry, with a superb article by our own Michael Yates titled "Braverman and the Class Struggle" which is available on their website ( The article, however, that is most germane to our discussion is by Bryan Palmer. Titled "Before Braverman: Harry Frankel and the American Workers' Movement", it provides details about Frankel/Braverman's career in the SWP, his fight with Cannon and his political work following his expulsion. I have scanned the article in and put it out on our website. ( Palmer writes:

"In the aftermath of the Cochran-Frankel expulsion, Harry Frankel lived on for a time. Cochran and Frankel founded the Socialist Union of America, and their first propaganda organ The Educator, a mimeographed sheet whose title was borrowed from the 1930s publication of the Mechanics Educational Society of America, a forerunner of the UAW with which Cochran had worked in his early auto organizing days. Frankel penned an initial article on sectarianism and splinter groups in the Trotskyist milieu, but within a year Frankel as a figure in the American workers' movement had passed from the scene.

"Harry Braverman reemerged as the co-editor, with Cochran, of the American Socialist, and leading spokesman of what purported to be a new politics of socialist clarity, in which the cancer of sectarianism would be excised from the left. Braverman and Cochran proposed to spread socialist propaganda that was comprehensible and liberated from jargon and ossified orthodoxies, strengthening ties to the union and progressive movements the better to lay the foundations for the future birth of a socialist Marxist party. In a 1954 speech, 'Setting a New Course,' Braverman pilloried the SWP as an isolated sect, 'trapped in fulfilling the obligatory moral action undertaken as a push-button response to an immutable law.' Trotskyist theory, he suggested, had died in 1940, failing to move beyond its hardened formulae. Like all sectarians, Braverman argued, the SWP did not want to learn from the masses, merging with the struggles and experiences of the working class, but to swallow them."

Phil Ferguson commented on the rather modest--to the point of disappearance--credentials of Jack Barnes in the mass movement. What is important to understand is that the Cochranites really represented the activist core of the SWP. Take, for example, Genora Johnson herself. There is little doubt that she was among the most skilled mass leaders in the American trade union movement of the 1930s. Even Frank Lovell paid glowing tribute to her in his talk. For the essentials on her career, I recommend the entry in the latest edition of Paul Buhle's Encyclopedia of the American Left, written by Sol himself:

"Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan (where her mother, Lora Aibro, had gone to give birth), but raised in Flint, Genora Johnson (1913-1995) became a charter member of the newly organized Flint Socialist Party in 1931. She would go on to play a pivotal role in the sit-down strike of 1937 at General Motors Plant No. 4, an event that led to the signing of the first union contract by General Motors and was a turning point in the organization of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). Her first husband, Kermit Johnson, was the only member of the city-wide strike committee who worked at that plant, and his proposal that it be made the focus of the strike encountered opposition from Walter Reuther and other members of the Socialist Party; Genora appealed to Norman Thomas for support, and her unyielding insistence was a primary factor in the strategy's ultimately being accepted. Then, during the strike, she organized the thousand-member strong Woman's Auxiliary, out of which emerged a paramilitary Women's Emergency Brigade of four hundred. Arming itself with clubs to defend the strikers, it played a crucial role in their eventual victory. (The Auxiliary was the subject of the documentary With Babies and Banners, an Academy Award nominee in 1978.)

"In 1938-1939, Genora Johnson organized the first unemployed union to be affiliated with the UAW and served as its secretary. To avoid blacklisting by General Motors, she moved to Detroit with her second husband, Sol Dollinger, and worked at Briggs. She was elected vice-chair of the Shop Stewards Body and sat on the committee set up in 1945 to investigate physical beatings of trade unionists. She soon became the victim of a lead-pipe attack while asleep in bed. Six years later the Kefauver Committee determined that the Briggs beating and the shotgun attacks on Walter and Victor Reuther were instigated by an alliance of several major Detroit auto executives and the Detroit Mafia.

"Johnson joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1938 and was a founding member of the American Socialist Union in 1953. From 1960 to 1966 she was an officer in the Michigan Civil Liberties Union, and she was one of the first presidents of Women for Peace, an anti-Vietnam War organization. While in that office she persuaded a number of Detroit union leaders to come out publicly against the war."

People like Genora Dollinger and Harry Braverman understood that a genuine mass revolutionary party would have to emerge out of the mass movement itself. The clash between Cannon and the Cochranites was in many ways similar to the one that took place between Barnes, a latter-day Cannon with none of the redeeming features, and Peter Camejo. Under the impact of the Nicaraguan revolution, Camejo became convinced that a much broader organizational framework was necessary to move American socialism forward. When he proposed to the SWP leadership that they run a joint campaign with other left forces against Mayor Koch, they became unglued. This was heresy that eventually led to his expulsion.

The Cochranites ran into the same kinds of obstacles, as Sol has pointed out. When a modest proposal was made to remove the little icon of Trotsky from the masthead of the Militant, we can assume this was viewed as liquidating the party into the Stalinist swamp. In reality, Bert was simply thinking through the problems of trying to reach American workers in their own vernacular and symbols.

In some ways the struggle to build a non-sectarian revolutionary movement is more favorable than ever. The success of this mailing list is a vindication of that. Marxists simply do not want to be bothered with tiny, self-declared vanguards who repeat party lines in a mechanical fashion. As gloomy as our situation can seem sometimes, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the seeming triumph of imperialism, we should remind ourselves that the greatest subversive of all is the capitalist system. For a reminder of how tenuous the stability of the capitalist system is, I recommend the latest Monthly Review which is a special issue on "Capitalism at the End of the Millennium".

While I have quarreled often and vociferously with Doug Henwood in the recent past, his article is especially valuable in light of the discussions held here recently over "Camejo's Long Wave." Doug's article "Booming, Borrowing, and Consuming: the US Economy in 1999" has some eye-opening statistics on the problematic nature of our "prosperity". Drawing from the National Bureau for Economic Research, Doug points out that from the first quarter of 1991 to the first quarter of 1999, average annual real growth was 3.2%. From fourth quarter of 1949 to the second quarter of 1953, it was 7.5%. Wage growth for the 1990s was 0.2% annually, for the 1949-53 period, it was 3.1%. Meanwhile, the USA seems to be the only country in the world enjoying any kind of "prosperity" at all, as opposed to Japan, for example, which is seeing a record number of suicides over economic failure.

It is difficult to figure out what will happen next, least of all on the economic front. The one thing that we do have control over, and an ability to make predictions about, is how to build a revolutionary movement. I have enormous confidence in the ability of Marxism worldwide to make enormous strides forward, since so many of the mistakes of the past seem generally understood by now. As long as we can combine equal amounts of modesty and audacity, any goal including revolution seems reachable.

Louis Proyect