NACLA's East/West Struggle

September 25, 2007

The very apparent vulnerabilities of democratic socialism, combined with the secrecy induced by government surveillance, attracted one group of Naclistas to Leninist strategies and forms of organization. The idea was to slowly build a revolutionary socialist party in the United States—a “vanguard” party under whose leadership the working class might gain “revolutionary consciousness,” and under whose discipline its members could become more than a collection of individuals; they would be a cohesive group of activists and organizers carrying out a unified party strategy.

One of those Naclistas remembers being attracted to Leninism when working in Central America. Supporting revolutionary and anti-imperialist movements from afar, it seemed, could not be as valuable as changing things from within the seat of the empire. And U.S. foreign policy could not be changed without changing society as a whole. By the mid 1970s, about half of the staff of NACLA’s West Coast office had opted to place themselves under the “discipline” of a California-based Leninist vanguard party called the Democratic Workers Party (DWP).

A NACLA West minority, including Klare, Farnsworth and Burbach, strongly opposed any connection between NACLA and the DWP, arguing that NACLA should remain a pluralist, nonaffiliated organization. And Leninists and non-Leninists alike shared a recognition that NACLA’s readers—not to mention funding sources—were by no means ready to embrace a vanguard party, and that NACLA Reports had to continue to be made comprehensible to a broad-based, nonspecialist, politically nonsectarian readership. Further, there was a nagging suspicion even among the DWP adherents that one of NACLA’s strengths was its nonexclusiveness, and that a staff member’s acceptance of a political “discipline” would violate that understanding among the rest of NACLA’s members and adherents.

The division, even more than the MIR-UP disagreements on the East Coast, threatened to tear NACLA apart. Farnsworth, for example, says she had already begun to distance herself for various reasons, “including the ultraleftism,” and left NACLA when she got pregnant in 1974. Klare says he left because he did not want to be coerced into “ a political cult.” Nor, he remembers, did he want to “spend all my energy having to defend my views from this onslaught which I felt betrayed the bonds that had developed among people.” Klare, like many Naclistas over the years, felt that NACLA had fulfilled “a friendship and community function. There was a sort of protectiveness. We looked after each other’s needs. Now there was a clique that operated secretely and tried to coerce the rest of us.”

The conflict came to a head with the publication of an April 1977 Report called “Boss and Bureaucrat.” The Report triggered a massive dispute between NACLA East and NACLA West, the gradual departure of DWP members from NACLA West and the closing, two years later, of the NACLA West office. “Boss and Bureaucrat” was an extended argument that “contract unionism,” the unionism of the U.S. labor movement, was a practice that betrayed workers by forcing them to submit to the discipline of capital. The capitalist “boss” and the labor “bureaucrat” were basically allies, pursuing their own interests at the expense of the working class. The Report characterized reformist and mainstream labor leaders as “two wings of the same vulture,” feeding on the bones of working people. The “vulture” metaphor, more than anything else, led the East Coast to refuse to distribute the issue.

Janet Shenk, now a staff member of the AFL-CIO, had joined NACLA East a year earlier. The problem, she recalls, was not only the content of the issue, but the semi-secretive way it was put together: “There was never a notion that the two coasts had to agree on everything, but this was just beyond the pale.”

Steven Volk was another member of the East Coast Collective who reacted strongly to the issue. “It was clear that people on the West Coast were joining the DWP,” remembers Volk, “and it was clear that they wanted us to do more things in the interest of the party and it was clear that we really disagreed with what they were saying. If you could posit a party we actually supported and thought they were doing the right thing, would we have objected so strongly? Probably not. But we thought they were fundamentally missing it. And to argue that progressive wings of the union movement were just as bad as the worst capitalist raider struck us as nuts.”

It was all the more damaging, remembers Volk, because this was a time when the anti-intervention movement was beginning to get support within the labor movement. What had been a reflexively anti-Communist U.S. union movement was beginning to look at places like Argentina and Chile and see the savage repression of labor. People at NACLA East were reaching out for the labor contacts that would become strong within the next few years. When the West Coast office shipped finished copies of “Boss and Bureaucrat” east, remembers Volk, “we read them and said: ‘Absolutely not! Unacceptable!’ They had printed the whole run; we had all the copies. We sat down to read it and thought ‘Oh God!’ We had never done that before. We sent back our comments and they were obligated to make the changes. We destroyed the old issues and printed a new report.”

While the rewritten report retained the (toned down) revolutionary politics of the DWP, the controversy produced three significant long-term changes in the magazine. All articles were henceforth signed instead of assumed to be written collectively; the staff of both coasts was now listed on the masthead; and the disclaimer, “the views expressed in this Report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of NACLA,” was—and is still—printed on the masthead page. In addition, a joint resolution was agreed to by both coasts: “No staff, associate staff, promotion manager, business manager or other NACLA member...can belong to an outside disciplined organization.”

Since one couldn’t be a member of a “disciplined party,” and a member of NACLA, DWP members left NACLA. “I still think I should have been allowed to stay,” one who wishes to remain anonymous says, “but we couldn’t transform NACLA into something it wasn’t.” In the end, notes Jon Frappier, a protagonist in these debates, “there was always a sense, on both coasts, that we could have our differences but that we should never allow those differences to split the organization.” In that sense, he says, “there has always been a certain maturity.” The departures set in motion a process that would eventually see the dismantling of NACLA West—but not of the organization.

Consolidation discussions between East and West began taking place in 1976, and by 1978, at the annual meeting in New York, the Naclistas realized that it was not possible to maintain two offices. Fred Goff remembers taking a walk with Steve Volk “in which we talked about the tension and how it was not clear whether it was going to be an amicable or an antagonistic split. I told him I wanted it to be an amicable separation and that I would work to implement that.”

It was initially assumed—in the East-West discussions of 1976 and 1977—that consolidation would take place in the West; that a decision to consolidate would mean that NACLA East would close its offices by the end of 1978, with NACLA West being obligated to take on all East Coast staff members who wanted to make the move. “I think in a number of ways the West Coast office was stronger than the East Coast,” says Goff, “in terms of the size of the staff, the fundraising it did, the building of the research library and the outreach.” Indeed, the impressive research library and well-developed outreach tools stayed west and became the foundations of the DataCenter, the activist research organization established by Goff—and of which he has been a guiding spirit for the past 25 years—upon the closing of NACLA West.

Says Goff: “I think that NACLA emerged and survives today because it was not sucked into and totally assimilated” by the party-building debate. “We became as pluralistic as possible while staying firmly on the left.”
What’s more, this was just the time when the struggles of Central America were poised to enter the foreground of the left’s political consciousness. Over the next decade, these struggles would become the crucial context for NACLA’s analyses of U.S. policy and would give the group a new focus and renewed purpose.

NACLA: Linking the Americas

“The most valuable characteristic of NACLA was its decision and ability to respond to events. Whether it was the 1968 massacre of hundreds of radical students in Mexico City or what was happening at Columbia [University in New York] and the student movement at home, NACLA was able to respond. I think partly it was because NACLA was so young and unformed at the time, but also, of course, because we all felt we were part of the movement. We spent a lot of time going to campuses and I remember we’d pick up some Newsreel [a leftist distributor] films and give talks and show films and so you had a sense that we were coming to organize. We were able to respond and to bridge the gap between Latin America and the United States and link the powers that affected people and issues and struggles in this country and in Latin America.”

Jon Frappier, interviewed May, 2002

Tags: NACLA, leftist politics, division, newsletter

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