Given the memory of the McCarthy inquistion
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 had largely been discredited, the Korean War had deescalated
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, 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 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. In the 1930s,
his organization merged with 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 very
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,
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.
The sound quality of the 1958
reel to reel tape is generally quite good though the tape is
beginning to deteriorate. The web version of the recording is
monaural mp3 format files, sampled at a very low rate to limit
file size, and quality is further complicated by the speakers
attending to their audience rather than the recording, moving
away from and closer to the microphone. These are large files
thus not recommended for those with a dial-up connection and
only average patience; they will take a long time to load.
The meeting lasted nearly two
hours. They had iron butts in those days!
The introduction was by George
Watson, a political scientist who was then the Dean of Students
for Roosevelt University. The organizers of the meeting probably
did not expect this introduction. 3:20 minutes, 1.9 megabytes;
click here to download or use the player