Hal Draper, American Marxist

Berkeley Free Speech Movement, 1964. Mario Savio (center) wrote the introduction to Hal Draper’s “Berkeley: The New Student Revolt” (1965), saying: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” became a motto of the Free Speech Movement when Jack Weinberg was quoted to that effect. Hal Draper is one of the few “over thirty” who were familiar with the events of the struggle from the very beginning, and who understood well enough to take the students seriously. He has always been ready with encouragement, but has consistently refrained from giving inappropriate and unsolicited “vintage 1930” advice. This is far from common with our “fathers.”

One of the ways that leftists like to set themselves apart from “normal people” is by how much they’ve read about very obscure topics. The average leftist reads a lot, but limits themself (himself, usually) to books that are politically “safe”. Anyone who has ever been associated with an opposing ideology is off limits, whether a theoretician or artist.
The anarchists who refuse to read Marx are as intellectually stulted as the Marxists who prove their point solely by referring to the authority of Marx. I know I’ve gotten a lot by breaking out of the circle-A, and not just limiting myself to the “safe” Marxists who were anti-state, either. Among anglophone anarchists, it’s become OK to read Capital, the German Council Communists and the Johnson Forrest Tendency (CLR James, Grace Lee BoggsStan Weir, Marty Glaberman), and, for the more adventurous, even the spicy Italian autonomia. (Among European anarchists I’ve met it seems that the taboo against anything “Marxist” remains stronger.) The problem is that  the focus is on a couple of pure theoreticians, rather than taking a more holistic study of debates that have arisen out of workers struggles. Hal Draper is one of those Marxists that are very closely associated with one particular strain (Trotskyism) and ignored by most radicals outside of that strain. This is a shame, as he was a thoughtful and committed revolutionary who made some very interesting points about the ways that revolutionaries are attached to the creation and recreation of ineffectual and isolated organizations. Those of us who want to avoid the “micro-sect”, as Hal put it, would do well to engage with what he wrote about this dynamic.

Hal Draper began a life in American Trotskyism with the 1930’s student movement, was active in the Worker’s Party during WW2 until the 50s, and resurfaced in the early 60s with the Independent Socialist Committee in Berkeley (which was well placed when the Free Speech Movement made Berkeley a radical hotspot). Both the ISO and Solidarity claim direct heritage from him, and on many questions his standpoint was similar to what passes for modern Trotskyism. He was not opposed to working class parties, he was against those 60’s radicals who denounced the reactionary union bureaucracies and called for “revolutionary” unions, and he was critical of CLR James and his group that so many of us know and love.

Recently, Harvey Swados’ novel “Standing Fast” has resurfaced, giving a treatment of American Trotskyism in the Great Depression that is both epic and very human. Readers may recognize parts of Hal in Joe (who seems to be a composite of Hal Draper and Stan Weir). Hal was part of the Worker’s Party, a group that during WW2 was virtually alone in promoting a labor opposition to the war, and a left opposition to Russian imperialism. Given how tiny they were at the start of the war they did have notable successes, although many of their leaders were later either swallowed into the UAW bureaucracy or academia. Hal would later point to this as “optimal conditions” for what he would call a micro-sect dressing itself up as a mass party, as the Workers Party had a monopoly on a left critique of Russia and the war at the time and had a great will to find roots among industrial workers, all while trying to be rooted in the everyday life of the country.

During the 50’s and 60s’ Hal rejected what he called the “sect” as a model for organization. For him the groupuscules which called themselves “parties”, or cadre organizations, attempted to mimic the worker’s parties of yesteryear. However, since they could not mimic the broad and organic relationship with the working class (or at least its most militant and representative sections) that those parties had, all that they ended up mimicking was the bureaucratic internal regime. Generations of socialists had seen internal commissions and organizational discipline as an unfortunate necessity which allowed the useful parts of the organization to function. In contrast, the sect-forming radicals of the 60’s saw this internal bureaucratic activity as the main point of the organization. Previously. membership in a working-class party was based on class position, general agreement with the party’s outlook, and agreement to participate in the life of the party. Now, the micro-sect defined membership by agreement with it’s specific intellectual formulations and opposition to the formulations of the other micro-sects.

Hal maintained that even the Bolsheviks, prior to Stalin, were much more similar to the orthodox mass parties of the Second International than they are to the caricature which now passes for “Bolshevism”. According to Hal, even Iskra had not been a rigidly ideological membership organization, but was what he called a “political center”.

A political center, for Hal, is not a membership organization, but organizes and promotes ideas and strategies within a larger movement as well as within various membership organizations. This is a way to consider the relationship between a group of people promoting debate and discussion while embedded within a movement, aside from the classic division of “political/cadre organization” and “economic/mass organization.” It doesn’t require us to agree with the general ideas that the political center advances – both CrimethInc and Libcom.org could be considered contemporary political centers, although the ideas they advance are not generally compatible (and arguably they are parts of totally different movements/scenes). Hal argued, convincingly, that every mass socialist movement going back to the 1800s had been built over the opposition of the sects, on the basis of broad class movements and organizations as well as political centers; and he argues that this model is our best chance for creating something like a socialist workers’ movement in the US that is more than just a collection of sects.

Hal also sought to map out a practical approach of uniting radical politics with workplace issues and labor struggles. He had nothing but contempt for the popular 60’s ideology of making “revolution in the streets” by “offing the pigs”, and he also rejected the attitude of middle-class intellectuals who got jobs in factories and then immediately started telling the workers there why they should reject their union, go on strike to defend Albania, etc. Hal proposed acting as a “loyal opposition” in the labor movement, that is, opposition to the union leadership but loyalty to the things that unions fight for (and which workers want more of), such as pensions, time off, an end to harassment, control over working conditions. His essay “Marxism and the Trade Unions” is one of the few that tries to explore what, exactly, socialists might do in workplace and union struggles. He has a particularly nuanced take on “dual unionism”, the red herring of American socialists since 1905; he did not reject it in principle, and allows that many advances have been made by split-off or dual unions, but he rejected attempts at forming “revolutionary unions” when it is just another name for a sect.

On the surface this may all seem irrelevant for modern IWW members and other radicals. After all, the vast majority of the micro-parties of the 60’s are now little more than bad memories. At the same time, the first response to the question “What should socialists do in the labor unions” at this point might be “Unions? What unions?” 50 years ago, more than 1 in 3 workers in states like California, Michigan, or New York were union members, and there were important labor struggles taking place: black-led wildcats against the UAW in the Michigan auto plants, and in California the United Farm Workers were fighting the growers as well as a blatantly racist, heavy raid attempt by the Teamsters. (The college volunteers for the UFW form the model of disposable staff used by neoliberal unions today such as SEIU and Unite-Here.) However, after thirty years of defeat after defeat, and reformation of the working class, any examples of labor struggles that we can point to are few and far between. I’m not sure about the statistics for younger workers in particular, but among people I’ve met who are under 35 and weren’t already radicals, I could count on one hand the number who have ever had a union-represented job.

And yet, for those of us who believe that an anti-capitalist, mass workers movement can be built in America, there are lessons to draw from Draper. We can begin by completely rejecting the sect form of organization, which has made a comeback through avowedly cadre-ist groups like Advance the Struggle and Bring the Ruckus, but has also come in through the backdoor with the recent vogue among anarchists of separating everything into “political” and “economic” organizations.

I suggest that a healthy ecology would be seen with workers’ organizations, on the one hand, which certainly could have political perspectives but without requiring ideological agreement for membership nor barring themselves from the rest of the world based on ideological agreement or disagreement; and on the other hand, Draper’s notion of “political centers” as groups, not necessarily membership organizations, which promote ideas and strategies in as broad of a movement as they can. Thus I’d suggest that a blog like Recomposition, which some have argued is basically a political organization and should structure itself that way, can much more naturally be thought of as a political center. I hope that the IWW and its periphery will become vibrant and multi-tendency enough that many such political centers can exist and promote public debate around its strategy and theory.

Hal Draper spent his life trying to find the path to a socialist movement in the US beyond the activist milieu. Let’s try to make it happen.

What to read:
If you only have an hourThe Alternative to the Micro-Sect This, along with Anatomy of the Micro-Sect, is a great starting point for discussing what makes a sect and how we might build a living socialist movement in America despite them.
If you have a day: The Myth of “Lenin’s Concept of the Party” Draper makes a strong case that Lenin’s writing on organization was basically Second-International orthodoxy, which has been wildly overinflated both by Leninists and anti-Leninists
If you have a monthKarl Marx’s Theory of Revolution I haven’t had a chance to read this yet, but based on everything I’ve read in Draper I have no doubt that it will be phenomenal. In particular Draper always focused a lot on demystifying Marx
For more ContextStanding Fast The tell-all novel of American labor radicals between the build up to WW2 and the zenith of the Civil Rights movement. Read it against The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and see how many parellels you find.
[Post-script: This article was updated in May 2017, three years after it was originally published. I had originally hoped to start a series of short introductions of under-appreciated Marxists, beginning with Hal Draper. My ambition knew no bounds but free time under capitalism certainly does. Aside from updating the title, I have added links and made some minor edits to the text for flow. Also, since writing this article, I have had the good fortune to read Lars Lih‘s excellent Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? In Context, which I believe confirms much of Hal’s historical arguments against those who justify the sect form by appealing to the Bolsheviks LLW]

7 thoughts on “Hal Draper, American Marxist

  1. Hal Draper? The guy was a joke, an intellectual fraud. His account of anarchism in “The Two Souls of Socialism” shows that beyond doubt — and best not mention his attempt to defend Lenin against those who, rightly, point to the totalitarian implications of his vaguardism:

    H.5.4 Did Lenin abandon vanguardism?

    also of note is this reply to David McNally who basically ripped off Draper for the SWP:


    So, feel free to read him (I have, obviously) but recognise he had no intellectual honesty and was more than willing to distort anarchism to further his aims.


    1. I’m always amazed how, when you are criticizing others, you only ever quote yourself. “Intellectual fraud”, after all, is the kind of accusation that is strong enough to usually merit a little more substance behind it.

      Never mind the fact that you completely ignore the points I try to raise about Draper. The only thing that’s “obvious” about your knowledge of Draper is that you know the title of his most well known pamphlet. In fact your copy and paste defenses of the boundaries of anarchist sectarianism would be annoying, if they weren’t so comical.


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