Politicized obituaries

Jose G. Perez jgperez at SPAMfreepcmail.com
Fri Oct 8 19:40:01 MDT 1999

>I read the Militant newspaper nowadays in the same way my mother reads the
>Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. Although she left Kansas City in 1947, she
>wants to keep track of people from her youth. I confess that one of the
>things I am most interested in is obituaries of American Trotskyists. I
>always like to find out personal details about party members, especially
>the old-timers, which usually comes out in their obituary. In life, they
>are only known about their place in the party hierarchy. In death, you
>often find out who they *really* were.
>What really rankles me, however, is how these obituaries have become
>politicized in the worst sort of way. They serve as disciplinary tools to
>remind the membership of what's expected from them. So long-time party
>members are not commemorated for their complexity as human beings and
>revolutionaries, but only insofar as they map to the current bizarre
>notions of "worker-bolshevism" in the party.

I think Louis's point about the slanting of articles commemorating comrades
in the Militant is well-taken. Unlike Louis, I did know Ethel Lobman
personally, and although a lot of incidents from her life are recounted, the
real person is missing from the Militant's account, and most of all the
central role she played in one chapter in the SWP's history. Before that,
though, some further reflections on the Militant's recounting of the Cochran
split in the SWP:

>During the early 1950s a faction developed in the SWP leadership that led a
>split in 1953. A sizable minority in the party had abandoned hope of
>building a revolutionary party - recoiling in face of the witchhunt, and
>softened by the relative prosperity following Washington's victory over its
>imperialist rivals in World War II. Supporters of this faction proposed
>curtailing or outright doing away with petitioning to put SWP candidates on
>the ballot, opposed organizing regular public meetings, and argued against
>adopting nationally centralized goals for sales of the Militant and

This was the "official" explanation of that split also when I was in the
SWP, and it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. These are, at most,
differences over tactics, emphasis and priorities, and as such, quite
susceptible to compromise and accommodation. There are ALWAYS going to be
these kinds of differences in any organization, and sometimes they will be
quite sharp. Where the differences are of this type, an intelligent,
conscious leadership will look for ways to place the minority comrades in
roles and responsibilities which largely coincide with the things they want
to emphasize.

What The Militant fails to tell its readers is that, over the previous four
or five years (1948-1953), there had been many other differences, political
differences over Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia and China. As events progressed,
it became clear that the positions of the minority, largely identified with
the Cochran wing of the party, were correct, and in the main became the
positions of the party as a whole.

It also fails to explain that, behind all the specific organizational
disputes, there were important differences on the evaluation of the period
and on the perspectives embodied in a document adopted by the first
post-WWII convention of the SWP, generally known as the American theses. The
American Theses projected that the U.S. political situation would pick up
where it had left off in the 1930s, that an expanding and
ever-more-combative movement of the working class would develop, and that
the essential ingredient for making a revolution in the U.S. was a
revolutionary party and it already existed in the SWP and all it needed was
fleshing out.

Although things certainly looked this way just after the war, that's not the
way it turned out. Cochran and his comrades sensed the change in the
objective situation; the central leadership around Jim Cannon did not. Even
after the witch-hunt started in earnest, the Cannonites viewed the
stabilization of capitalism as, at most, a brief parenthesis, a hiccup on
the road laid out in the American Theses; the Cochranites did not. Hence
Cochran's biting line "We were the children of destiny -- at least in our
own eyes."

It is, of course, unchallengeable that the Cochranites were, in the main,
right on this also, as they had been earlier on Eastern Europe and China.
However, the SWP did not recognize officially it was in a period of
retrenchment until AFTER the Cochran split, which also coincided with a
change in the central leadership of the party, with Farrell Dobbs taking
over the central responsibilities from Jim Cannon, who was sent as far away
from the party center as possible, i.e., Los Angeles. But at the first
plenum after the split Farrell Dobbs came in with a report consciously
organizing the party for retreat, shifting the tone of the Militant (which
until then had remained hyper-agitational) projecting a judicious
scaling-back of activities, and so on.

These were all, of course, in the direction that Cochran had been
recommending for years; and if, as Frank Lovell once explained to me, the
problem with Cochran was that he went too far, turning a necessary retreat
into, in effect, a rout, part of the reason for it may well have been the
majority's stubborn insistence that nothing much had changed since 1946 when
the party doubled or more in size in a few months in the middle of a huge
strike wave.

Militants of the generation of the 60s who stuck with the SWP into the late
70s or later, as Louis and I did, will undoubtedly recognize the parallels
between the 50s and what happened some 25 years later. The most salient
difference is that, under Farrell's leadership, the SWP finally understood,
and adapted, at least enough to the reality of the world it was living in,
to survive and become a significant political force by the early 1970s;
under the leadership of Jack Barnes the party has NOT reconciled itself with
the real world and, in fact, increasingly lives in a world of its own
creation where U.S. imperialism lost the Cold War and the disembodied
essence of the East German workers state haunts Europe in a much more
literal sense than Marx's metaphorical "spectre of communism" did 150 years

And this brings us back to Ethel Lobman. For, in a sense, for a brief
moment, Ethel Lobman became the central leader of the SWP even though
neither she nor the rest of the party recognized it at the time.

Mention is made in the Militant that Ethel Lobman devoted most of her
efforts in the 60s and 70s to raising her children; and that she played a
significant role in the struggle for minority-community control of the
schools in District One, in New York's Lower East Side.

The Militant says the significance of this struggle is that a few people
joined the SWP. But it represented much more than that.

The District One struggle was the origin of the SWP's post-Vietnam War and
post-student movement orientation, which was simply and generally to the
movements, communities and organizations of working people and especially
its most oppressed layers. And Ethel Lobman didn't get "assigned" to this
struggle by the party. Life assigned her to it. Her children assigned it to
her. Neither she nor the other parents in that community could wait for the
withering away of commodity production for the schools to be fixed.

Housewife Ethel Lobman was the living, human nexus between the SWP and that
struggle; and it came from who she was, a working-class mother who was a
communist. She's the one who convinced the SWP of the significance and
importance of that struggle, and the branch that resulted from the
orientation to that struggle was unlike any other branch of the SWP in my
experience. For it was dominated by community people; and, for a couple of
years, there was no political incident or fight that took place in that
neighborhood that the branch did not have to grapple with.

Ethel was in the community's eyes a central if not the central parent leader
of the District One struggle. The Shankerites red-baited the hell out of her
and tried to use the fact that she was a white Jew to create frictions. They
did not succeed.

It was, of course, a mistake for the SWP to try to mechanically duplicate
the Loisaida branch all over the country, as it set out to do. That
working-class branch had been built around, really, Ethel, and her role in
the community. But even so, the general idea and orientation was correct
enough that the party generally gravitated towards working people in motion,
in struggle. In a way, the SWP was beginning to retrace some of the more
positive aspects of the Communist Party's role in many American communities
in the 1930s, and especially in Black communities. It was becoming rooted,
not in the heavy armored divisions of the proletarian army gathering even
now just over the next ridge of the class struggle, but in the everyday
experiences, life and struggles of working people.

The "turn to industry" closed that chapter in the SWP's history. If instead
the SWP has stayed true to Ethel Lobman's example, I think it could well
have shed more of its sectarianism and become a vibrant, combative voice for
socialism in the United States.

The future will see a resurgence of American radicalism and working class
militancy in the United States. It is incumbent upon those of us who lived
through earlier periods of upsurge and struggle to keep alive the example,
and an unvarnished history of what happened, even to groups, such as the
SWP, that some historians view as insignificant.



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