Norman Thomas and Max Shachtman

These recordings are from another reel of audio tape from the late Carl Shier’s basement. This one was a real (begging your pardon) find as the recording dates from 1958. Furthermore, Shachtman, as I recall, was not in general enthusiastic about being recorded. If that sounds a bit shifty to you, it does to me as well, but that’s my bias. Shachtman, IMHO, was not someone who brought out the best in people. Also, if you know anything about open reel magnetic tape, it doesn’t always age well or for long, so it was a real surprise that the audio quality was as good as it was.

As with the earlier audio posts here at Yip Abides, the recording was posted on Chicago DSA’s web site back when I was the web master. This was done early in the century when a plurality of web access was still done through slow dial-up connections, so I had an incentive to degrade the quality slightly and divide the recording into five parts. Altogether, the program lasted nearly two hours. They had iron butts in back in the 1950s! If you have only the time for one, my recommendation would be to listen to Norman Thomas, but that’s mostly because Thomas dealt with issues that I find interesting.

The text below is a slightly edited excerpt of the text from the original web page:

Given the memory of the McCarthy inquisition and the image of the silent generation, it’s hard to imagine 1958 as a particularly optimistic time for the left. But by then, McCarthy-ism had largely been discredited, the Korean War had de-escalated to a fitful cease fire, the Civil Rights Movement was gathering momentum, labor organization was nearly at its all time high including a recent reunion of the two major wings of the movement: the AFL and the CIO. Nor was the economy especially good; the country was undergoing its first experience with “stagflation”: inflation accompanied by relatively high unemployment.

On a smaller scale, the left was coming together. The Socialist International had recently helped engineer a reunion of the old Socialist Party of America and the Social Democratic Federation from a split that had happened in the 1930s. Negotiations were underway to merge with Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League. As part of this process in Chicago, a series of public events, the “Democratic Socialist Forum”, were being held, and this is a tape made of one of them. The Democratic Socialist Forum was a joint project of Socialist Party – Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Socialist League, and the Jewish Labor Bund.

Max Shachtman of the Independent Socialist League leads off the discussion. Shachtman is one of the more interesting and obscure historical figures. He was one of the founders of American Trotskyism and an organizer of the Trotskyist 4th International and he played a major role in the famous Teamsters strike in the Minneapolis. In the 1930s, his organization (the Workers Party) entered the Socialist Party with the explicit (if covert) intention of either taking it over or destroying it. They more or less did the latter. But in later years, Shachtman (but most especially his followers) played an increasing role in mainstream politics, particularly the Civil Rights movement and the labor movement. For more information, see Peter Drucker’s biography, Max Shachtman and His Left. This is a rare recording of Max Shachtman and mostly interesting in the context of his political career.

Norman Thomas was the Socialist Party’s Presidential candidate from 1928 through 1948. Thomas was already in his 70s and his delivery shows it. But if Thomas showed some physical infirmity, his presentation (mostly on the problems of the left) touched on the concerns that dominate the left today [this was ~2000], including the problem of labor organizing in an economy that was already showing the effects of automation and a swing from manufacturing toward services.

This recording is an interesting historical record of two of the major players in the 20th Century U.S. left.

1. Introduction — George Watson

The introduction was by George Watson, a political scientist who was then the Dean of Students for Roosevelt University. The organizers of the meeting were probably expecting something better of Watson, but as the author John Scalzi has observed, the default failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.” Length — 3:20.

2. Max Shachtman

Max Shachtman begins the discussion with his vision of what a democratic socialist movement should be. Length — 39:48

1959l
Max Shachtman at the 1959 Debs Dinner in Chicago. Photo by Syd Harris, scanned from contact sheet.

3. Norman Thomas

Norman Thomas speaks to the problems facing the democratic left in 1958. Length — 40:24.

1959 Debs Day Dinner
A. Philip Randolph and Norman Thomas at the 1959 Debs Day Dinner in Chicago. Photo by Syd Harris.

4. Max Shachtman

Max Shachtman’s reprise, wherein he speaks about Leninism. There’s about a 30 second gap resulting from the amateur engineer running out of tape and having to flip over the tape reels and rethread the machine, but you’ll have to listen closely to spot it. Sabotage? That’s a fanciful thought under the circumstances, but I’ve seen any number of amateurs and even a few professionals do the same. Length — 17:03.

5. Questions from the audience.

The question and answer session showed that lefties hadn’t changed much in the last half of the 20th Century. Strip away the specifics of current events in 1958 and this could have been from 2000. I suspect the possibility of something new is rather greater today, but I’ve not been to a political meeting in years. You tell me. Unfortunately, the questions are only somewhat audible. Length — 34:38.

Postscript

A curious note from when the program was posted on the Chicago DSA site: The site, back then, was hosted by pair Networks. They provided access to the raw log files that recorded activity on the site, but the customer had to find their own analytic software. pair Networks provided two shareware open source options. We used Analog. Every month that I ran the numbers, there would be hundreds of requests for these audio files. That seemed unlikely. Further undermining its credibility, the volume of data (the total number of bytes sent in serving those file requests) would never come close to the total needed to account for all those requests. By examining the logs, it became obvious that when a user downloaded or listened to one of these files, that action would result in multiple requests for the file, each ending with a “partial download” code until a final request was served. By filtering out those requests returning a “partial download,” one still got a number that was too high. It turns out that many of the remaining requests were not for the file itself but for the “meta data” (title, duration, etc.) that one might expect if the file were part of a play list. And where were those requests coming from? Perhaps a majority of those were from web spiders that index the web, including China’s Baidu. The rest? A plurality by IP address, China. Of course, with VPNs, there’s no telling for sure where the requests were originating, but I had this fantasy of someone in Stalinist China setting up a honey trap for Trots… We’ll never know, but my experience counting beans for the web site left me with a profound mistrust for all traffic numbers for the web. It’s not that they are lies, necessarily, but the beans selected for counting on web servers were to serve the needs of the people running the servers not the authors and the editors (or advertisers!) of a web site. In general I regard the numbers as accurate only to within an order of magnitude.

One thought on “Norman Thomas and Max Shachtman”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s