Carl Cowl: a story of defeat and survival

Issue: 177

Richard Bradbury

In June 1952, Grace Carlson, one of the staunchest members of the United States’ Socialist Workers Party (SWP), tidied her desk in the offices of the organisation’s Militant newspaper and left the building.1 She had been the only woman defendant in a 1941 treason trial, when SWP activists were arrested under the repressive Smith Act, and stood as the party’s vice presidential candidate in 1948. Over the following weekend, she returned to the Catholicism in which she had grown up.2

James P Cannon, then national secretary of the SWP and its key founding figure, wrote at the time that Carlson’s decision was “only the final effect of the many successive blows of persecution, poverty and discrimination that had been inflicted on her during the long time she fought on the side of the poor for the great ideals of socialism”.3 Unlike many others who fell from the ranks of the revolutionary movement, she insisted to Cannon that she would not join “the ranks of the contemptible informers” who betrayed comrades and friends. Indeed, in her biography of Carlson, historian Donna Haverty-Stacke argues that her return to the Catholic faith was in some way a continuation of her social commitments.4

Carlson is not the subject of this article, so why begin with this story? Because part of revolutionary socialist history is inevitably those who were lost to the cause for one or another reason. All the more purpose, then, to remember those who maintained their commitment and activity. From an encounter in 1917 to his death 80 years later, Carl Cowl maintained a commitment to revolution: reason enough to remember him.

Carl’s name will probably provoke one of two reactions among readers of this journal. One will be, “Who?” The other will be a stream of reminiscences filled often with affection and humour. My aim is to introduce the former group to Carl and to open a door for the latter group to further develop our knowledge and memory of him. To this end I would welcome responses to this article and further information about Carl via email, with a view to writing a larger biography.5

Why Carl, why now?

So, why write about Carl? Because he was a foot soldier of the revolution.

Too often, no matter how good our intentions, we focus on a handful of influential and important figures. Of course, there are reasons for this. One is that they are well documented, whereas the rest of us are often not. Yet, we should think of every revolutionary, present and past, as “gold dust”. Few of us, very few indeed, have the capacities of a Lenin, a Leon Trotsky, a Rosa Luxembourg, an Alexandra Kollontai or indeed a Tony Cliff or a Duncan Hallas.6 However, many others have untapped resources—experiences and thoughts that can and should contribute to a constantly developing sense of the richness and complexities of our movement. We insist that we should and can learn from the working class, and we also can and should learn from each other. Carl, by his own and often repeated insistence, was a less than central figure. That does not mean that we cannot learn from him. Indeed, there are many reasons why we must learn from him: because his life as a revolutionary was marked by great success and great defeats; because in his political life he made some very good choices and some equally bad decisions, and we can perhaps learn from those to help us emulate the good choices and avoid the bad ones; because his life has lessons for us about how to build a party, how not to build a party and how to live a life as a revolutionary; and because, although 2022 was the 25th anniversary of his death, when I have mentioned I was writing this article, this has provoked a further stream of stories and reminiscences.

Carl was, by his own mythology, conceived in Vilnius, which is now in Lithuania but was then part of the Tsar’s empire. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota. He grew up there and in Minneapolis after his parents and siblings had passed through the Ellis Island immigration cattle market, fleeing from the murderous assaults repeatedly launched against Jewish communities in the Russian Empire. One of Carl’s many bad jokes was that there were so many Lithuanian tailors in Brooklyn called Ferguson because the immigration officials mistook the Yiddish phrase “ikh fergasn” (“I have forgotten”) for a surname.

He grew up speaking Yiddish as his first language and did not learn English until he entered grade school. This gave him a living connection to a culture almost entirely smashed by the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. He continued to teach Yiddish almost until the end of his life.

After enrolling as a music student at university—thus embarking on a lifetime of studying, listening to and performing music—he had an accidental encounter that shaped the rest of his life. Stopping to eat his lunch, he sat down next to another student. That student was Martin Abern, who went on to become a crucial figure in the early days of US Trotskyism. Later, sometime between November 1917 and 1920, Abern asked, “Carl, have you heard the news from Russia?”

When Carl was asked that question, he was not a socialist. He was, however, a frequent attendee at discussions in the Minneapolis Labor Lyceum about the possibility and desirability of a working-class seizure of power. “That argument was settled when the Russian revolution took place… It was a red dawn in the East.” Abern’s recruitment method was to sit on a park bench with Carl all day for seven days, working through a series of Karl Marx’s pamphlets—Value, Price and Profit and then Wage Labour and Capital. For the rest of his life, Carl saw this process as an “inoculation against capitalist propaganda”.

This encounter led Carl to a long-term suspension of his studies and the start of a life of revolutionary activism. A brief period of involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which was campaigning among the itinerant agricultural workers of the Midwest as they followed the harvest northwards, led to membership in the developing but still underground Communist Labor Party of America.7 At some point, he moved to New York. From then until the 1940s, he moved back and forth between New York City, Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis.

Telegramming Lenin: legality and illegality in US conditions

The origins and development of the Communist Party in the US comprise a complicated and often frustrating history marked by furious debate and deeply entrenched factionalism. Carl was an accomplished public speaker, and one of his routines was to tell a story about a telegram that was sent to Lenin in order to seek his advice during these debates, thus connecting his audiences in the 1980s and the 1990s to the historical actuality of revolution. “What was the reply?”, someone always asked. “There wasn’t one. He was busy with other things”, was the well-timed riposte. Of course, though there may have been no reply to the telegram, Lenin did write a “Letter to American Workers” in summer 1918.8

Broadly speaking, the divisions are in some ways familiar to us today. An important argument was taking place between reformists rooted in the Socialist Party of America (SPA), which had experienced some electoral advances, and revolutionaries emboldened by events in Russia.9 Another rift, cutting across the aforementioned divide in other directions, was between the so-called foreign language federations, rooted in the waves of primarily European migration over the preceding 40 years, and the English-speaking socialist groups. The foreign language federations produced many weekly and daily newspapers and sometimes organised extensive social welfare networks on a similar model to the Social Democratic Party, Germany’s mass reformist party. The English-speaking groups were politically heterogeneous and influenced by the IWW’s syndicalist politics and organisational methods. These were significant cultural differences, but the more important dividing lines were between reformists and revolutionaries.

During this period, there was extensive production of books and pamphlets of varying worth. The sheer volume of this material is an indication of a vibrant political culture, belying the frequently repeated assertion that the US working class has never had any interest in socialist politics and organisation.

Others have picked their way through the twists and turns of all of this in much greater detail, so I intend to focus for now on one debate and one figure, and their relevance to Carl’s story.10 The debate, which was the reason for that telegram to Lenin, revolved around the question of whether it was better to build legal or underground organisation. The figure was James P Cannon.

For many of the recent migrants from Europe the legal versus underground debate was about principles rather than tactics. Their experiences of repressive and often murderous regimes, and continued reports of these from Europe, shaped an argument that was reinforced by the successes of the Russian Bolsheviks—a party they saw as rooted in a political environment of secrecy and illegality. In an interview in 1988, Carl was scathing about this rigid approach to organisation, describing its proponents as “romantics” in contradistinction to the practicality of the Bolsheviks. Two Communist Parties emerged from these debates.

Nevertheless, the argument of the advocates of the underground was to some extent justified by the response of the US government to the Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War. A wave of arbitrary arrests, jailings and deportations was launched, and physical attacks were directly carried out or tacitly supported by agents of the state. A vicious propaganda offensive was coordinated by the US attorney general whose name became synonymous with this attempt to crush the rising level of class struggle: Alexander Mitchell Palmer. The Palmer Raids had some success in generating a defensive atmosphere that could sometimes veer into paranoia. They were, however, resisted (sometimes successfully) by what Conservative Party ministers in the British government might today call “activist lawyers”. They were also resisted by elements within the state apparatus, which included officials in the Department of Labor who saw incorporation of dissent as a more effective tactic than all-out repression.

The debate gradually came to be dominated by an argument “rooted in the conditions of the US”.11 Cannon and William Z Foster were among its main proponents. These two went on to become major figures, respectively, in US Trotskyism and Stalinism. Significantly, though emerging from traditions of trade unionism and militant grassroots organisation, Cannon and Foster were also able to mobilise support from the foreign language federations for the founding statement of an open and legalised party: the Workers Party of America. Formed after the Bridgman conference in August 1922, the Workers Party contained both of the Communist Parties and a number of other groups.

However, in retrospect, that founding statement was made too late. By then, the US economy was stabilising and the level of class struggle was declining. Until 1928, the US Communists would face both the domestic problem of trying to build in a period of working-class retreat and the problem of responding to how the international Communist movement was trying to come to terms with the similar conditions. Nevertheless, the move to openness and legality created opportunities to construct a series of united front organisations, all of which aimed to generate “mass work”. Despite Carl’s obvious enthusiasm about this period of growth, it is striking that he became distracted by a long and detailed explication of the internal factional disputes within the Communist Party when he discussed these years in an interview. To me, this reflected a tendency to overemphasise the internal tensions and disputes within organisations.

Through this period, Carl was an active participant in politics and political debate. Despite his relative youth and inexperience, as well as his background in the traditions of the foreign language federations, he argued the need to establish an open and legal party. In 1920, while a still a student, he moved to New York and became an “office boy” for The Liberator magazine. This was a new environment, made up of what could loosely be described as bohemian intellectuals. He was introduced to black radical poet Claude McKay and socialist writer Max Eastman as well as the journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant. Carl was present during The Liberator ball when Bryant and McKay were arrested for dancing together after a police raid; this was a time when this sort of cross-racial activity was illegal in the state of New York.

McKay remained a presence in Carl’s life until the former died in 1948—and indeed until Carl’s own death. As well as writing “If We Must Die”, a widely read and reproduced poetic explosion of rage at the race riots that broke out across the US in 1919, McKay was also a novelist. He authored Home to Harlem, the first bestselling novel by a black writer published in the US, and Banjo, an exhilarating account of migrant labour life in Marseille. Trotsky encouraged him to write an account of the situation of African Americans after his speech at the 4th Congress of the Communist International (“Comintern”).12 Even today, McKay remains a scandalously neglected figure.

Carl remained the (often lone) voice advocating the importance of McKay’s writing. That advocacy has been more than vindicated by the appearance of two lost novels, one of which was described by a New York Times reviewer as the “most important novel of 2020” (even though it was written nearly a century earlier). It is a disgrace that Carl’s tireless work is now almost completely ignored by academics who have prospered through engaging with McKay’s writing.

The influence of Max Eastman is also present, though less tangible, in Carl’s development. Eastman was a contrarian voice (and one that would become politically more erratic and detached over time) as well as the earliest anglophone translator and supporter of Trotsky’s developing opposition to the degeneration and Stalinisation of the Comintern.

Founding US Trotskyism

Between 1922 to 1928, the gradual deterioration and sclerosis of the Comintern slowly became clearer. This was reflected in the US by increasing bureaucratisation of the Communist Party’s structures and the growing influence of “Moscow voices”. Indeed, Carl argued, against much other testimony and evidence, that the Russians were inclined from very early on towards an authoritarian approach born out of the example of the successful 1917 Revolution.

In 1922, Cannon made his first trip to Moscow, attending the Fourth Congress of the Comintern. At the time, he was clear that this organisation, created by the international revolutionary upsurge between 1917 and 1919 but now wrestling with a very changed political situation, was “clearly no mere mouthpiece of ‘Russian authority’”.13 Nevertheless, that was changing. The 1922 congress was in many ways the last gasp of a genuinely open, democratic and internationalist revolutionary organisation. Here Cannon came to know McKay and Eastman—both unofficial but welcomed presences—and met Trotsky for the first time.

Unfortunately, the tide of revolution was ebbing fast internationally. In the US this manifested as a series of factional disputes and regroupings as the Communist Party tried to find a way to grow. Again, the complex detail of these shifts is beyond this article’s scope, but one photograph from that time demonstrates its fluidity. In it four young comrades stand on a New York rooftop. They represent what would become four distinct threads in socialist politics over the next 25 years. Carl is one of them, Max Shachtman another. The other two have faded into complete sectarian obscurity. It is a mark of Carl’s political sharpness and personal capacities that he could be scathing about Shachtman’s decline into reaction while still telling affectionate, funny and often scurrilous anecdotes about him.14

A factional group developed around Cannon, based primarily in the Midwest, and became the centre of opposition to the growing bureaucratisation of the party. This latter development was best characterised by the presence of a man sometimes called John Pepper. Also known as József Pogány, Pepper had been a participant in the Hungarian Revolution in 1919, but he escaped to Moscow after the revolt was crushed. In the Soviet Union he became a functionary of the Comintern as it began to move away from revolutionary internationalism. At this time, this organisation was turning into a machine designed to meet the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy as it calcified into a state capitalist ruling class. The changing diplomatic priorities of this bureaucracy guided the Comintern far away from its original aims. Pepper became increasingly important in the US Communist Party as the 1920s progressed and its factional groupings hardened. Politics and personalities always intertwine to some extent, and this came to the fore as the possibilities for large-scale growth diminished. Cannon’s contempt for Pepper’s manoeuvring and unprincipled approach to politics was summed up retrospectively in an assessment—that clearly applied to Pepper—that Stalin made “leaders into shit and shit into leaders”.

At some point in this period, Carl moved back to Minneapolis, becoming ever more closely associated with the group around Cannon. In 1928, all these disparate threads and tendencies coincided. The Comintern had met in Moscow every year from 1919 to 1922, then for a fifth time after a gap of two years. However, there was then a gap of four years: a sure sign that open democratic debate had effectively been sidelined in the intervening years. The new congress met in large part to endorse the Stalinist bureaucracy’s abandonment of internationalism in favour of “socialism in one country”, a bastardisation of socialism. Yet, a tiny flicker of debate still survived in the form of Trotsky’s final attempt to oppose Stalin’s rise from within Russia and the Soviet Communist Party. He wrote a scathing critique of the new policy, “The Draft Program of the Communist International—A Criticism of Fundamentals”.15 Benefiting from a bureaucratic mistake, this document circulated in small numbers to the congress delegates. One copy came into Cannon’s hands, and it crystallised his previously inchoate unease with the direction of the US party.

The story of how the document survived the tight control of the Stalinist machine and was smuggled out of the congress is both fortuitous and farcical, involving the use of a teddy bear belonging to one delegate’s child. The writing’s survival and subsequent distribution was nonetheless one of the foundations of what became the Left Opposition internationally. It stands as a vital part of the traditions of the International Socialist Tendency as well as orthodox Trotskyism. As a refutation of Stalinism and a restatement of the principles of revolutionary socialism it remains worthy of close study.

On his return to the US, Cannon made use of his small base of support and his factional skills to draw together a small group of revolutionary socialists who would make a clear break from Stalinism. Carl’s part in this was small but important: small, because what happened involved probably 200 people at most; important, because without it the opposition to the counter-revolution of Stalinism in the US might have been snuffed out. His role was to draw together the supporters of Cannon in Minneapolis and the Midwest in preparation for the clean break that led to the foundation of the Communist League of America in 1928. Marxist historian Bryan Palmer’s biography of Cannon records:

Through a careful correspondence with Cowl, Cannon managed to steer the twin cities comrades onto the tracks of a principled political opposition—one that bridged dissidence from Moscow through New York to Minneapolis via the ideas of Trotsky’s “Draft Program”.16

The resulting convergence of a number of tendencies would shape Carl’s decisions over the next years. His political principles and clarity of thinking pointed in a definite direction, no matter how difficult, but he also possessed a propensity towards (and I choose my words carefully here) a settledness with the prospect of isolation. These qualities interacted in ways shaped by the advances and retreats of class struggle as well as the types of strategic and tactical decisions we all make in such shifting circumstances.

Things moved very quickly. Cannon presented a programme based on Trotsky’s critique to the central committee of the US Communist Party, leading to his expulsion in short order. In Carl’s account, a central committee member travelled to Minneapolis to announce the expulsion, where Carl and others, in a manner apparently disingenuous but probably planned beforehand, asked why this decision was taken. The central committee member responded that anyone who questioned this decision, which remained publicly unexplained at this point, was also expelled. The preparations made by Cannon with Carl’s assistance enabled those already convinced by Cannon’s position to coalesce with those who were simply questioning what was happening. This process produced the nucleus of what became the Communist League of America (Opposition), one of the first Trotskyist parties. On 19 March 1929, Cannon, Shachtman and Martin Abern (Carl’s friend and comrade from Minneapolis) shared a platform to denounce the attacks on Trotsky. In May, 48 comrades representing about 100 gathered in Chicago to found the new party.

At this point, those grouped around Trotsky’s critique saw themselves as a “loyal opposition” to the deviations and degenerations of Stalinism—hence the bracketed “Opposition” in the group’s initial name. However, it quickly became clear over the next few years that retrieving the Communist parties wholesale from the grip of Stalin and his epigones would be impossible. Stalinism was determined to snuff out the candle of revolutionary socialist internationalism, however small the flame might be. Today, it is hard to grasp the force and power of Stalinism, which flowed from its appearance as the flag-bearer of socialism as much as from the harsh methods it used for dealing with its opponents. In 1981, a Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) hardliner told me that he had “shot Trots like me in Spain” and “given half a chance” he would “shoot Trots like me again”. Even then, when the CPGB still wielded considerable influence and presence, I felt safe to laugh at him. For Carl and his comrades in 1928 and the years immediately afterwards, the situation was very different. They were subjected to violent attacks and assaults. Their meetings were disrupted, and they were subject to vicious, potentially lethal lies spread through newspapers and other media. The autobiography of Trotskyist writer Irving Howe recalls how meetings were often marshalled by comrades carrying baseball bats and handguns for protection from Communist Party thugs. Elsewhere in the world, imprisonment, torture, execution and murder were commonly deployed against the Trotskyists. We thus have a duty to remember the comrades who sustained the movement at that time: Trotsky, of course, and other well-known names, but also the now lost and forgotten socialists whose everyday commitment turned ideas into a living reality of sorts. Carl was one of these comrades.

The immediate task for the Bolshevik-Leninists—chary of being called Trotskyists and encouraged in that wariness by Trotsky himself at the time—was to grow. The possibilities and the problems of this endeavour were enlarged abruptly the following year by the collapse of the world economy in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. The possibilities centred on an upsurge in class struggle as the ruling class tried to make ordinary people pay the price of economic collapse. Unemployment rose, and so did all of the associated social dislocations. Many are familiar with the photography and fiction documenting the Great Depression. By 1931, there was a “Hooverville” (an encampment of the homeless) on the White House lawn itself. The suddenness and profundity of the crisis shook US society from top to bottom and opened the door to mass radicalisation. The problems for the tiny Communist League of America (Opposition) can be summed up in one word: Stalinism. The Communist Party denounced them as agents of counter-revolution and fascism and directed its resources against them. They struggled to grow.

The next five years involved slow, difficult and often dangerous attempts to build a party. During this time, Carl met and married Sara Avrin. Their son, Karl Marx Cowl, was born. In later life, working for NASA as a research scientist, he chose to call himself Carlo.

In 1934, things began to change. Two important strikes among New York hotel workers and the Teamsters in Minneapolis drew a number of working-class militants into the still small Communist League of America. Farrell Dobbs’s eyewitness narrative of the Minneapolis strike, Teamster Rebellion (Pathfinder Press, 1972), and Palmer’s Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes of 1934 (Haymarket, 2013) are in their different ways vivid accounts of that struggle. The strike, involving hundreds of workers and violent attempts by the bosses and state to break them, was crucial to sustaining the Communist League of America, which managed to build itself up in small but significant ways. Carl’s account of these days, recorded by me in the 1980s, gives a vivid picture of the events and the politics. Characteristically, he consistently described himself as just a rank and file party member.

The maze of history

At this point, I need to digress a little. History, the old nostrum tells us, is written by the victors. It would be more accurate to say that the victors’ account usually speaks more loudly than those of others. After all, the losers’ account of the Vietnam War speaks very much more loudly than others. On a much smaller scale, the same issues affect our understanding of the development of revolutionary socialism in the US. One of the difficulties of writing about this history is that the numerous versions come (as is ever the case) with agendas. For example, although I have often relied here on Cannon’s numerous books and collections of writings and speeches, I am also aware that they often provide a highly partisan account about which others (also with their own agendas) are deeply sceptical. A flavour of this comes from Albert Glotzer’s 1945 review of Cannon’s The History of American Trotskyism:

The book would be bad enough if it were presented as memoirs or autobiography. But as history it is almost worthless… As a history, Cannon’s book is shallow, totally devoid of ideas, of theory and the politics which flow from it. The only politics that concern Cannon are inner-party, factional politics.17

Of course, Glotzer had his own agenda. He departed the US SWP along with Max Shachtman in order to form the Workers Party, which followed Shachtman’s thinking that Russia had become a bureaucratic collectivist state. This theory rapidly degenerated towards identifying Russia as a totalitarian state that posed a greater threat than US imperialism. During the Cold War, this line deteriorated still further as the group moved towards an undiscriminating anti-communism. In retrospect, this might be seen as proof of the validity of Trotsky’s and Cannon’s polemics against the Shachtmanites in the 1930s, even if the theoretical basis for their argument was flawed.

Charting paths: between sectarianism, reformism and factionalism

In the aftermath of the Teamsters’ struggle and the New York hotel workers’ strikes it was clear that there was a growing movement towards the left and rising levels of class combativity. This led to discussions with the American Workers Party (AWP), a group led by the pacifist and ex-preacher A J Muste in which sectarians, pacifists and soft Stalinists existed in uneasy alliance. By October 1934, the AWP and the Communist League of America were sharing speaking platforms.

Internationally, one product of rising class struggle and resistance to fascism was a marked growth of left-wing reformist parties. The Socialist Party, led by Norman Thomas, had started to command the support of considerably larger forces than the Communist League of America, which became known as the Workers Party of the United States (WPUS) after its merger with the AWP.18

Trotsky turned his attention to the rise of the left-wing reformism in a series of essays written between autumn 1934 and spring 1936, arguing for the smaller groups of revolutionary socialists to “join with” forces to the right of them. The arguments for and against this tactic—for it was defined as a tactic at the time, no matter what happened to this approach thereafter—provoked a furious debate. Was it an attempt to engage, organisationally as well as politically, with larger but less revolutionary forces? Or was it a somewhat desperate manoeuvre that compromised the integrity of the revolutionaries involved? Between these two positions were many other shades of opinion.19

The weight of Trotsky’s presence in the debate, which he pursued with his characteristic persistence, meant that the WPUS voted to dissolve itself in late spring 1936 and suspend publication of its newspaper and theoretical journal. WPUS comrades would join the Socialist Party as individual members. Previously more or less suppressed factional disputes within the WPUS had already erupted, leading to the departure of Muste and a number of other key personalities. Carl sided with one of these, a figure now long since lost in the annals of US sectarianism: Hugo Oehler. Even Sean Matgamna’s The Fate of the Russian Revolution—a somewhat obsessive and extensive (perhaps even exhausting) almanac of US sectarianism comprising two volumes and some 1,375 pages—does not include any of Oehler’s extensive writings, although the Marxist Internet Archive does have a few of his articles.

Oehler argued that the entryist tactic would lead the WPUS to be subsumed into reformism. At the time and during the interviews I conducted with him in the 1980s and 1990s, Carl argued this was a matter of principle: politics and organisation are intimately connected. Though correct in the abstract, this takes little or no account of the concrete circumstances of the moment. In 1934, the moment and its concrete circumstances demanded that revolutionaries seek out any and every route to greater influence—if nothing else, as part of building a mass opposition to the rapid rise of fascism internationally.

Personality played a part in the subsequent events. What began as a debate about tactics quickly turned into an argument about principle and from there sank into vitriol on both sides. Carl, the previously trusted and loyal comrade, became something quite different in Cannon’s eyes: “a perfect prototype of those here in New York who are demonstrating at a crucial moment in the life of the League that they are incapable of subordinating personal interests and aims to the interests and aims of the movement”.20 By autumn 1936, the rupture was complete.

Was the turn to the Socialist Party successful? I doubt it. A factional dispute flared up in short order, and Thomas moved to expel the revolutionaries. They undoubtedly won over some younger activists from the Socialist Party, but they equally well lost some members. By the end of the tactic’s deployment, it had probably been little more than a zero-sum game. A much later exchange between Carl and Cannon summed up their different perspectives. Cannon said that they left with more members than when they entered, and Carl replied, “More what?” The much more important effect was that, in the long term, the Trotskyists were distracted from direct involvement in another wave of class struggle by being caught up in a series of disputes and wrangles with the Socialist Party machinery. US Marxist academic Milton Fisk summarised the effect of the entry:

Curbing their mass work, the Trotskyists were on the sidelines of the biggest upsurge in 20th century US labour. They adapted themselves to the Socialist Party leaders and missed the opportunity of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which the Communist Party used to become an important influence in labor.21

Tony Cliff came to much the same conclusion in the final volume of his biography of Trotsky:

This gain in membership, however, was counterposed by the curbs they experienced due to being in the Socialist Party. They came under attack from its leadership and were diverted from struggles in what turned out to be the crucial year of the mass unionisation movement.22

What (perhaps sometimes contradictory) lessons does all of this offer us? First, the factionalism that characterised and marred orthodox Trotskyist groups can all too easily distract from the main task of building an open revolutionary organisation and current within working-class struggles. Second, organisational structures flow directly from politics and the concrete situation within which revolutionaries find themselves. Third, rigid adherence to the principle of organisational independence at all costs can too easily lead to sectarian isolation. Indeed, it is more than possible to argue that US orthodox Trotskyism has been impaired by an almost inherent sectarianism since its earliest days. Material and historical factors have contributed to this, such as the repeated and deeply hostile attacks launched by the ruling class’s political organisations and the sheer geographical separation of members from one another. Today, the most obviously pressing task is to overcome this sectarianism in order to confront the onslaught of the far right and those swept up in its train. The good news is that this is starting to happen.

Carl had made the utterly principled decision to break from the Communist Party in 1928, playing a small but important role in establishing the Communist League of America. This was a tiny grouping, but it nevertheless ensured the continued survival of revolutionary socialist ideas in the face of the forces of reformism and Stalinism. However, I argue (and indeed argued with Carl) that the rigidity of thinking that I have mentioned also influenced him and led to isolation, which became more profound as time passed.

The personal cost for Carl was the departure of his wife and son, Sara and Carlo. Sara remained a close associate of Cannon and those around him for some years. Indeed, they both appear in a mural painted in New York by Diego Rivera, which celebrated the revolutionary continuity of Marxism from Marx and Friedrich Engels through Lenin and Trotsky to the leading figures of the US SWP.23 The political cost in some ways mirrored Carl’s personal loss. What began as a dispute about political principles turned swiftly into a sectarian vortex powered by frustration at the inability to grow and attract new members.

The ABC of Marxism

Despite this decline, Oehler’s Revolutionary Workers League (RWL) has left some small legacy for us. Part of this is The ABC of Marxism, which was written by Carl. This was his one substantial contribution to theoretical and educational writing for a revolutionary organisation. Its front matter gives a sense of the seriousness with which it was written: “ABC of Marxism. In ten lessons with Foreword and Appendix. Compiled under the direction of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Workers League of the United States. By Carl Cowl.”

The dedication to Louis Basky, an RWL member who had died prematurely, identifies the document as having been written after his death on 18 August 1938. The opening lines of the Introduction, which is dated May 1939, would not be wholly inappropriate today:

The whole capitalist world is in a crisis from which it cannot recover. Everywhere society is in chaos and ferment. Unemployment and starvation, crises and war are shaking up the thinking of millions of American workers and impelling them on the road of struggle against the system that oppresses them and drives them toward annihilation.24

Nevertheless, some passages carry the mark of a catastrophism that has repeatedly tripped up the political perspectives of orthodox Trotskyism. Indeed, Trotsky’s own The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International is marked by the same millennarian tone and flawed analysis of capitalism’s supposed inability to survive its crises.25

Thereafter the pamphlet rehearses the basics of Marxist theory under a series of familiar headings: “The basic ideas of Marxism”, “The development of capitalism”, “Imperialism”, “The struggle for power and the revolutionary Marxist party”, and so on. Much of this is uncontroversial to Marxists today, and so the points of interest lie elsewhere. Historiographically, these include the suggestions for further reading, which move between the familiar (The Communist Manifesto and Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England) and the now almost forgotten (em>The English Agricultural Labourer 1300-1925: An Historical Sketch by Montague Fordham and T R Fordham and History of the First International by Yuri Steklov). These suggestions give a sense of how Marxism has both retained its interpretative power and developed under changing circumstances. Carl’s (admittedly much later) reservations about some of the document’s formulations are also revealing. There is, for instance, an entirely orthodox assertion that Russia remained a workers’ state in 1939, although he later claimed that he was dubious about this (presumably to some extent a legacy of his closeness to Shachtman). There is also an obvious gap between its assertion of the importance of the united front tactic and the actual activity of the RWL: a reminder that what an organisation does is a great deal more significant than what it claims to do.

Finally, there is the Appendix: “How to organise and conduct successful study groups.” The seriousness of purpose is again present from the first sentence: “In assembling the group, select elements who not only want to KNOW but who want to PUT THEIR KNOWLEDGE TO USE.” It continues: “Marxism is not a set of dogmas to be memorised. It is a method of thinking and a guide to action.” Then it concludes:

There will become evident, after the class has progressed three or four weeks, a close and living connection between the subject matter and the actual labour movement. The leader should plan, together with the League unit—where there is one—or with the class committee, various activities to illustrate the connection.26

The document is no more than a footnote in the history of US revolutionary socialism, but I would argue that it demonstrates the commitment and dedication of its author to the serious activity of building a party.

“No longer a subversive”

The advent of the Spanish Civil War seemed to offer some international possibilities and two members of the RWL central committee were despatched to Barcelona. The first product of this was Barricades in Barcelona, a pamphlet co-authored by Oehler and Russell Blackwell (also known as Rosario Negrete).27 The second was a split in the RWL that seems to have been rooted much more in personal animosity than any serious political disagreement. Oehler himself was one of the two RWL members who travelled to Spain and, in the absence of his uniting presence, the already tiny group ruptured into two factional groups. Ludicrously, both claimed the organisation’s name, although the faction to which Carl belonged appended the parenthetical “(Fight)” to distinguish themselves. These events caused a serious loss of experienced comrades to the forces of US revolutionary socialism and smacked of the scene in The Life of Brian so often used to ridicule the left. By 1940, all the energy of these activists had been lost in the sands. The rival group to Oehler’s, led by Tom Stamm, dissolved itself in 1940, burning all its records in a bonfire of paranoia. Oehler’s group limped on into the 1950s before falling apart.

In 1939, after a decade of dedicated and unpaid commitment, Carl needed money to survive and support his son, who was living with him more and more. In his words, he applied to the party to be allowed to find a job: a marker of the seriousness with which he and others approached revolutionary activity. He worked off and on for the next decade or so as a merchant marine sailor, initially on the Great Lakes and then on the Atlantic run.

By 1940, Carl had moved to New York in search of work and to be nearer Carlo. Sara had travelled to Mexico in order to be with her new partner, Harold Robins, who was one of the security guards at Trotsky’s house. The murder of Trotsky on 20 August 1940 had a shattering effect on the couple; when they came back to New York later that year, Carl judged that they were incapable of caring for Carlo. Carl effectively became a single parent. As the US slipped into the Second World War and a Communist Party-inspired suspension of much class militancy, he decided that he was not some patriot prepared to risk his life in the Atlantic runs. He found safer employment in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a lathe operator, acquiring a set of skills that he would continue to use for many years afterwards.

As the 1940s wore on, he also established a small literary and theatrical agency, reasoning that being self-employed would afford him greater protection against the rising wave of red-baiting that he predicted. Through this agency he sometimes organised work for blacklisted actors and writers using assumed names. Most importantly, he became Claude McKay’s agent and, when the poet died in 1948, the executor of his estate. Carl’s work of defending and developing McKay’s reputation continued for the rest of his life as he fought to keep his writing in print and before the eyes of readers. He also attempted to have McKay’s unpublished works printed. The agency developed into a successful business, but Carl found he had lost contact with the working class. His involvement in politics declined until it was conducted solely through reading newspapers.

In the mid-1950s, Carl was summoned to appear before the state authorities in New York to answer the “charges” that he had been a member of the Revolutionary Workers League and was the author of The ABC of Marxism. He was not prepared to deny these allegations or to renege on his beliefs, but he was aware that the impact of being found “guilty” would be significant. He consulted a lawyer friend who—bizarrely—sat on the tribunal board as the trade union representative. Carl was advised to “keep his goddamned mouth shut”. He acknowledged the charges but, under the advice of the lawyer, the committee found that he was “no longer a subversive”. I remember the two of us laughing very loudly at this.

In 1958, he decided that he was bored with and alienated by the increasingly commercialised work into which he was being pushed. He closed the agency and returned to his music studies, completing a degree using “stale credits” from nearly 40 years earlier. He then worked as a music therapist and teacher in the New York prison system, alongside a small group of psychiatrists pioneering music therapy for patients with catatonia. “Forced” (his word) to retire at 65, he began a PhD on musicology and the work of the British music theorist Henry George Farmer. For this project he needed to learn Hebrew and Arabic because so much of Farmer’s work was based on original sources in these two languages.

Carl became good friends with Helen and Norman Rosten, his downstairs neighbours in Brooklyn. Norman was a novelist and poet, and Helen was (among her many other careers) Marilyn Monroe’s personal assistant in New York. Their friendship and association with Monroe even led to the actress appearing on Carl’s doorstep in some distress one day. Carl’s long friendship with the Rostens brought Norman to write a partly fictional account of Carl in his late seventies and early eighties that gives a flavour of him at that time:

Bert is the oldest resident in the brownstone, and the longest. He had been for many years a merchant seaman, lecturer and author on labour and radical movements of the 20th century, once an officer of the American Recorder Society, and involved in local agitations such as rent strikes and anti-nuclear protests. He’s slowed down a bit in body but hardly in spirit.28

The short story in which this passage appears portrays Bert’s self-construction of a harpsichord.

These biographical details are perhaps in themselves peripheral. However, what they indicate is the degree of isolation and retreat from political activity that the post-war years represented for many who had been class struggle militants in the 1930s. The early years of the 1930s had been characterised by Cannon as the dog days of US revolutionary socialism, but this was even more true of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Nonetheless, Carl’s isolation and retreat did not lead down the routes of reaction or defeat that so many others followed. For instance, Max Eastman, an early influence on Carl and the translator of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, was by 1940 arguing that Stalinism was the inevitable product of the revolution; his slide towards the right continued until he was writing for the Reader’s Digest by the late 1950s. Shachtman, a close friend of Carl in the 1920s and early 1930s, parted from Cannon and what had become the US SWP in the late 1930s; he rejected Trotsky’s assertion that Russia remained a workers state, no matter how deformed or degenerated it might be described. Shachtman initially founded the Workers Party, which became the Independent Socialist League, alongside the philosopher James Burnham. Burnham was the author of The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World (John Day, 1941), which partially inspired George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the organisation attracted a layer of other fascinating figures such as Hal Draper, who wrote many works crucial to our understanding of Marxism. However, Shachtman moved rapidly to the right during the late 1940s and the 1950s, ending up as a supporter of the Democratic Party and enthusiast for the US invasion of Vietnam. Oehler’s fate was also tragic, though for different reasons. He left Chicago in the 1940s when his wife became seriously ill and moved to New Mexico, embarking on a massive collection of studies in the dialectic that steadily become more and more abstract and detached. Indeed, I could continue this list, recounting potted biographies of the comrades who became ex-comrades and anti-communists—or just exhausted and disillusioned.

So, the 20 years after the Second World War were an often miserable and disheartening time for socialists in the US. The post-war economic expansion blunted working class militancy. Claims proliferated that capitalism’s ability to deliver white goods to working-class consumers meant that the world had fundamentally changed. The Cold War, with its heating and cooling, led to political isolation and suppression for revolutionaries. Historian Maurice Isserman describes this atmosphere and the tiny efforts made to keep the politics of the left alive in his If I Had a Hammer… The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (Basic Books, 1987). For some of the best, the civil rights movement was a source of political hope and a place for activism. However, the prevailing liberalism in the growing movements led both to great courage and to disgraceful attacks on revolutionaries as well as their marginalisation due to the charge of being Communists.

According to Carl, he came across a small demonstration in New York against the war in Vietnam at some point in the mid-1960s. By now, some of his more external eccentricities were apparent. It is entertaining to imagine the response of the small group of young anti-war protestors to a figure resembling an Old Testament prophet in baggy shorts and a loud shirt. He insisted on joining them as they marched. This marked a return to the open and active politics of the left. It is a mark of the man that he seized the opportunity to come back to mass politics despite 20 years of often profound political isolation. This isolation had been rooted in contempt for the machinations of bourgeois politics and politicking.

This event led to an involvement in the rise of the New Left and various small New York groups that were encountering Marxism. Eventually, Carl had a chance meeting with a member of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party. In 1982, this brought Carl to Marxism, the annual international conference organised by the party in London.

Carl also sought out old comrades from the 1930s in order to discuss their political histories. Some of these were sad tales of disillusionment, exhaustion and still deeply rooted sectarianism. There was also an encounter with the aging and increasingly marginalised Cannon. Carl’s scathing account of this meeting (of which I have a recording) emphasised Cannon’s rigidity and recasting of the history of the debates in the mid-1930s. When accused by Cannon of leaving the movement, Carl erupted with obvious anger, shouting, “We didn’t leave, you expelled us!” His rage was still clear at the time that he recorded this anecdote some 40 years later. To me at least, this was a sign of continuing commitment to revolutionary socialist politics.

Carl and I first met at Marxism 1982, where he was asked at short notice to cover for another comrade’s account of revolutionary involvement during the 20th century. Even now I can remember the audience reaction when an elderly man with a large white beard (the resemblance to Marx was cultivated) rose to speak when the chair said, “Carl, if you’d like to start.” Encouraged by my partner, I introduced myself. When Carl discovered that I lived in Glasgow, he became enthusiastic, asking if he could visit. I later discovered this was motivated by his need to visit a large archive in the university library that held material needed for his PhD. Nonetheless, this small expression of deviousness became unimportant as our late night and early morning talks extended for hours. This living link to the history and experience of revolutionary politics overwhelmed me.

The visit featured a meeting between Carl and the Scottish revolutionary Harry McShane. Like Carl, McShane was a veteran of the socialist movement who had broken from Stalinism. Harry explained his rejection of Stalinism after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and his subsequent membership of the International Socialists, forerunner of the British Socialist Workers Party. Carl testily responded, “A little late!” However, rather than this leading to a sharp exchange, Carl and McShane, who had a cumulative age of over 170, fell asleep in their armchairs.

I am still struck by Carl’s capacity to continue to make new friends and comrades. The 60-year gap between us was displaced as we talked and ate. He watched me smoke and drink, sniffing the long-prohibited smell of tobacco and whisky. A conversation started in Glasgow and continued in different locations for the next 15 years. I started to record interviews with him, which I am now working to make available through a website currently under construction. In 1992, I obtained a research grant to produce a catalogue of his vast library. Amid huge electric storms in New York, which reflected the political storms elsewhere as the Soviet Union disintegrated, we talked and talked of the possibilities that might be opened by the final collapse of this utterly discredited state. I continued to unearth extraordinary riches in his library. The books were a monument to his vast range of interests: politics, of course, but also musicology, the history and politics of African-American and black diasporic life, and the Yiddish language and culture. There was also shelf after shelf of literature and poetry. Marx’s favoured dictum was that by which Carl lived his life: “Humani nihil a me alienum puto”—“I think that nothing human is alien to me.”

Life lessons

In 1997, ten days after a telephone conversation with Carl of several hours, which had often been a weekly event, Carlo rang me. Carl had died in his sleep of a heart attack with a smile on his face.

I am acutely aware that this account stands at an odd angle to much else that has appeared in International Socialism over the years, and I am grateful to the editors for their indulgence. I want to finish by describing the example Carl offered me. It is an example that I have tried to emulate, though sometimes without great success: an unbending commitment to the politics of revolutionary socialism in even the most unpromising circumstances. That means activity. One of my many fond memories of Carl is standing outside the Ford Foundry in Leamington Spa selling Socialist Worker. Carl’s engaged enthusiasm bemused and then increasingly attracted the workers passing us, who were more usually indifferent. He managed to gather a small circle that only dispersed when the foundry’s hooter sounded. Another time, when Carl was in his early nineties, he marched out of our house to tell one of our neighbours, a man in his seventies, that racism was always a choice and that age and upbringing was no excuse. He said this was a lesson that he had learned in the 1920s.

That capacity for life was what first attracted me, and it sustained our relationship for an all to0 short 15 years. I learned from him that, yes, being a revolutionary means grasping the politics, understanding how we got to where we are and having a clear focus on how to move towards where we want to be. However, I also learnt that should not exclude the rest of life. Carl demonstrated this with his voracious reading of literature, his attempts to learn another language and his blagging his way into an over-priced concert. All this and more was the comrade I knew and, yes, loved. Listening to the interviews we recorded returned me to those rooms and occasions with a suddenness and vividness that shocked me that it is 25 years since he died. They also convinced me that the only way forward is to keep going.

What is the more obviously political lesson that we can take from all of this? It seems to me that the project of building a party necessarily involves principles, strategies and tactics. Furthermore, distinguishing between these three is important; confusing them often leads to disastrous mistakes. Any brief history of the entry of revolutionaries into reformist parties demonstrates this. However, the project needs to move beyond this abstract statement towards concrete analysis of the situation and preparedness to learn from both successes and mistakes. The break from the Communist Party in 1928 was anchored in principled opposition to Stalinism and conducted through successful tactics. The mergers of the 1930s, however, were more problematic for the Trotskyists, and a principled break from the entryist approach propelled the Oehlerites towards an increasingly isolated and sectarian stance. So, maintaining an organised group of revolutionary socialists is imperative, but the form this should take is shaped by complex objective factors and can only be discovered through analysis, debate and action that tests that debate’s results.

One more lesson of the histories of the US Communist Party and Trotskyist groups is that ingrained factionalism and infighting is distracting and undermines opportunities to grow and build. All too often this is the product of political isolation, which adds all the more importance to seizing every opportunity to escape that isolation.

More work needs to be done to recover the stories and achievements of the rank and file members of revolutionary parties. I hope that this article will encourage comrades to contact me with further information and stories about Carl. I plan to write a more detailed biography, and I need your help. Please reach out to me.

Richard Bradbury is a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party. He works for the Open University and is the author of Not Such a Tory Land and Riversmeet (Muswell Press, 2007).


1 The US SWP, not to be confused with the British organisation of the same name, began as an orthodox Trotskyist group but effectively abandoned revolutionary politics in the 1980s. It still exists and continues to publish the Militant as a weekly newspaper.

2 Thanks to Joseph Choonara and Christian Høgsbjerg for their comments and helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of this article. As I know Christian will agree, there is a lot more work to be done on similar figures.

3 Haverty-Stacke, 2020, p160.

4 She remained true to her word, retreating to a relatively sequestered life in Wisconsin and working as an educational psychologist. I met her shortly before her death in 1989 at a Labor Day event in the state capital, Madison. I sold her a copy of the then International Socialist Organisation’s paper, Socialist Worker.

5 Those wishing to contact me should email

6 Cliff and Hallas were founders of the political current in Britain associated with this journal.

7 The IWW was a syndicalist organisation, hugely effective in leading rank and file militancy among groups of workers often ignored or deemed too hard to organise. Cannon, in his early days, was a prominent figure. The environment within which agricultural workers were employed in this period is beautifully captured in Terrence Malick’s 1978 movie Days of Heaven.

9 The SPA was founded in 1901. It had some electoral success at both local and national level, culminating in Eugene Debs winning over 900,000 votes at the 1912 and 1920 presidential elections. However, caught between the revolutionary parties and the Democratic Party machine, the SPA struggled to attract larger forces. Today’s Democratic Socialists of America are a distant descendant of the SPA.

10 Much of the detail of these debates and divisions is summarised in Draper, 1957.

11 Palmer, 2010, p139.

12 The “Comintern”, also referred to as the Third International, attempted to spread the experience of the Russian Revolution worldwide. The first four Comintern congresses, and the 1920 Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku, were the scene of debates on organisation and politics that laid the basis for revolutionary internationalism thereafter. John Riddell’s herculean efforts to transcribe and edit the proceedings of these congresses have resulted in several volumes that are endlessly fascinating, if expensive, monuments to this history.

13 Palmer, 2010, p153.

14 Shachtman was a key figure in early US Trotskyism, bringing his skills as a speaker and writer to the movement. In the late 1930s, he engaged in a dispute with Trotsky about the Soviet Union. Trotsky argued it remained a workers’ state, albeit a distracted or degenerated one, but Shachtman saw it as embodying a new form of bureaucratic class rule. This led him to depart Trotskyism and develop a theory of Russia as a totalitarian state. He soon degenerated into a conservative (if occasionally mildly critical) defender of the US’s Cold War foreign and domestic policies. Peter Drucker’s Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the American Century (Humanities Press, 1994) is a generous (indeed, sometimes too generous) account.

16 Palmer, 2010, p348.

17 Quoted in Matgamna, 2015, p749.

18 This earlier WPUS bore no resemblance to Shachtman’s Workers Party—such is the confusing labyrinth of far-left groupings’ names.

19 For a fuller analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, see Cliff, 1993.

20 Cannon, 1985, p174.

21 Fisk, 1977, p10. The foundation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935 was an key episode in the US industrial upsurge of the 1930s. For more on this period, see Newsinger, 2012.

22 Cliff, 1993, p225.

23 An image of the mural, which was subsequently destroyed, appears in Breitman, Le Blanc and Wald, 1996, pp158-159.

24 Cowl, 1939.

25 This contrasts to Paul Burkett’s rather more sobering comment: “To put it bluntly, capital can in principle continue to accumulate under any natural conditions, however degraded, so long as there is not a complete extinction of human life.”—Burkett, 2014, p196.

26 Cowl, 1939.

28 Rosten, 1986, p133.


Breitman, George, Paul Le Blanc and Alan Wald, 1996, Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations (Humanities Press).

Burkett, Paul, 2014, Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (Monthly Review).

Cannon, James, 1985, The Communist League of America: Writing and Speeches 1932-34 (Monad).

Cliff, Tony, 1993, Trotsky, Volume 4: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star (Bookmarks).

Cowl, Carl, 1939, ABC of Marxism (Demos),

Draper, Theodore, 1957, The Roots of American Communism (Viking).

Fisk, Milton, 1977, Socialism from Below in the United States: The origins of the International Socialist Organization (Hera).

Haverty-Stacke, Donna, 2020, The Fierce Life of Grace Holmes Carlson: Catholic, Socialist, Feminist (New York University Press).

Matgamna, Sean (ed), 2015, The Fate of the Russian Revolution, volume 2 (Workers Liberty).

Newsinger, John, 2012, Fighting Back: The American Working Class in the 1930s (Bookmarks).

Palmer, Bryan, 2010, James P Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left 1890-1928 (Illinois University Press).

Palmer, Bryan, 2013, Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes of 1934 (Haymarket).

Rosten, Norman, 1986, Neighborhood Tales (George Braziller).