Politicized obituaries

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Oct 8 14:41:40 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.

For example, when Bob DesVerney died about 4 years ago, you could barely
get a sense of what an extraordinary individual he was. His party name was
Bob Vernon. Like many old-timers who joined before the 1960s, this security
measure was a necessity. Bob was an African-American intellectual who made
his living translating technical articles. I have heard that during
political committee meetings in the 1950s, he would doodle over
differential equations when he was bored with the discussion. I was friends
with Bob, although I lost touch with him after I left the Trotskyist
movement. He could speak eloquently about art, politics, science and human
frailties without missing a beat, weaving one observation into the other.
Bob once told me something in 1968 that stuck with me over the years. He
was a very advanced dialectical thinker. He said, "The way the party will
recruit workers is by recruiting more students." What he meant by that is
that if the party could build an infrastructure that ran successful
election campaigns, put out an impressive newspaper, etc., radicalizing
workers would be attracted to it despite the class composition of the
current membership.  Workers would never be attracted to a tiny marginal
group, no matter how "correct" the  class composition was. None of Bob's
special human gifts came out in the obituary. Instead, all it talked about
was his willingness to take part in the "turn" as a postal worker.
Obviously Bob was much better suited to be an intellectual worker, but he
was clearly pressured into becoming a "worker bolshevik" where he would
have little influence. This was a man who worked closely with Malcolm X in
the OOAU.

So when I looked at the latest Militant (www.themilitant.com), I was very
interested to see how they would cover the death of Ethel Lobman, a
long-time party member. Although I didn't know Ethel personally, I was
always aware of her presence as a short, Jewish woman with a pronounced New
Yawk accent. There was one pretty decent human interest anecdote:

>>In 1936, when Ethel was 12 years old, civil war broke out in Spain. "It
was the daily topic of conversation," she wrote in an account of her
political experiences through the early 1950s that she completed during the
last year of her life. "I was then in the Red Falcons, the very young
section of the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL)," the youth
organization of the Socialist Party. "We spent lots of time and energy
raising money on the subways. Once I was walking through the subway cars
saying, 'Help the Loyalists in Spain,' and an elderly woman leaned forward
and sweetly announced, 'Oh, but I'm for the Royalists.' I was so shocked
that anyone would actually admit to being for the fascists."<<

What struck me, however, was that Ethel's death was used as an opportunity
to bash the Cochran-Clarke opposition, which also included Sol Dollinger, a
Marxism list subscriber.

<<1953 split
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

Lobman was among the younger cadre of the party who defended the SWP's
communist continuity and argued that communists could and should carry out
public political work and broad propaganda campaigns, despite McCarthyism
and the relative postwar prosperity and retreat of the labor movement. She
was the organizer of the party's local executive committee in New York at
that time and a leader of the party's New York youth section. "I never
doubted my position," Lobman wrote. "Some things you start with - I started
with believing that you need a party, a Bolshevik, revolutionary party.">>

You have to understand that this bit of slandering nonsense about the
Cochran group is really more about the current day difficulties of the SWP.
You have an aging party membership that is being pressured into giving up
all semblances of a personal existence in order to make themselves
available for instant transfers to places where there is very little
prospect for doing serious political work. For example, the party
leadership has fantasized that the coal fields of Montana and Wyoming are
ripe for "worker-bolshevik" intervention. If a party member in Chicago with
a job in rail is told that they MUST DROP EVERYTHING to go to Montana or
Wyoming, a refusal would be interpreted as a sign that they are not serious
worker-bolsheviks. More to the point, they would be accused of having the
same sort of problems as the Cochranites, who as the Militant article puts
it, were "softened by the relative prosperity following Washington's
victory over its imperialist rivals in World War II."

All this is bullshit. If the SWP had adopted the Cochran-Clark perspectives
in the early 1950s, not only would it have been saved the cult-sect
evolution of the 60s and 70s, it is entirely likely that coal miners in
Wyoming and Montana would have joined on their own initiative without
prompting by outside missionaries.

Louis Proyect


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