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Norman Thomas and Max Shachtman

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 below.

Max Shachtman talks about his vision of what a democratic socialist movement should be. 39:48 minutes, 22.7 megabytes; click here to download or use the player below.
Norman Thomas speaks on the problems facing the democratic left. 40:24 minutes, 23.1 megabytes; click here to download or use the player below.
Max Shachtman's reprise, wherein he speaks about Leninism. There's about a 30 second gap resulting from the amateur engineer having to flip over the tape reels and rethread the machine, but you'll have to listen closely to spot it. 17:03 minutes, 9.7 megabytes; click here to download or use the player below.
The question and answer session shows that lefties haven't changed much. 34:38 minutes, 19.8 megabytes; click here to download or use the player below.

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