[Marxism] Edmond Kovacs and Howard Zinn

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 27 17:50:18 MST 2013


Howard Zinn and Edmond Kovacs

Most of you have never heard of Edmund Kovacs.  He died a few days 
before Howard Zinn, at the age of 85.  I don’t know if they were 
acquainted, but I can’t imagine their paths had not crossed.

I haven't seen an appreciation of Edmund’s life online, and I did not 
know him well (and this is a bit cobbled together.) I sincerely hope 
that an adequate tribute is being prepared, for he was a remarkable 
human being.

Edmund Kovacs was born in Austria in 1924. When he was a mere 10 years 
old, he served as a messenger in the 1934 armed uprising against the 
Austrian dictator Engelbert Dollfuss. He continued his revolutionary 
activities for the rest of his life, frequently under conditions of 
extreme risk.

His family came to the US in 1930, and Edmond joined the army right 
after he graduated from high school. He was a specially trained ski 
trooper skilled in hand-to-hand combat and in 1945 participated in an 
attack on German positions in Italy, where half his unit was killed or 
wounded. I remember being amazed when he related how, while in the US 
Army he had done underground solidarity work with soldiers in the German 
army – (I believe his own brothers in the German Army were involved in 
the group.)

Despite his public political life as a socialist, with a long-running 
radio show on KPFK, teaching at the New Left College in Los Angeles, 
writing and speaking - his experiences in war and underground activities 
so imprinted his life that he would dress and act in such a way as to be 
unnoticeable on the street.

He was a lifelong activist in the strikes and struggles of working 
people. He worked in the aircraft industry in Southern California until 
he was blacklisted during the McCarthy witch-hunt. He was a contributor 
to the International Socialist Review and many other publications. He 
was particularly knowledgeable about the post-war social transformations 
in Eastern Europe and wrote important documents on that history and the 
nature of Stalinism.

I knew him as Ted Edwards (his party name.) On one occasion, in the 
early 1970s, our small branch of the Socialist Workers Party (a very 
different group than the SWP of today) in Austin, Texas brought him in 
to speak at a socialist educational weekend.

We had no money and the plane ticket was a major investment, so we 
wanted to take full advantage of his visit. We had him speak at a public 
forum on Friday evening. Saturday and Sunday he gave a series of classes 
on Stalinism and another on Marxist economics, two or three each day. 
When he wasn't giving classes, we insisted on having informal political 
discussions over meals and bottles of Old Milwaukee.

We squeezed every word we possibly could get out of him, until we put 
him, exhausted, back on a plane Sunday night to go home.

My encounters with Howard Zinn were fleeting -- as someone that you 
could call when you needed signatures and endorsements for a 
demonstration or defense committee. In order to get “big names” you had 
to start with a couple of people like Zinn or Chomsky. They would be 
willing to sign their names, and because of that, others would follow suit.

Like many others, I found Howard's books and writing to be valuable 
tools for introducing people to real history in the working-class 
movement. I will leave it to those more knowledgeable to comment on his 
tremendous influence on American radicalism.

Edmund Kovacs and Howard Zinn were worker-intellectuals. They did not 
grow up in a middle-class environment that groomed them for intellectual 
and academic work. Instead, they were workers who rose to the occasion 
of their historical circumstances and accomplished things that they may 
not have envisioned in their earlier lives.

The labor struggles of the 1930s and 1940s transformed ordinary workers 
into mass leaders, revolutionary strategists, accomplished organizers, 
historians, economists, writers, educators, journalists, diplomats and 
anything else the movement needed. This was not a small group of people. 
There were thousands of workers that accomplished amazing things – they 
wrote for union publications, spoke on campuses, authored pamphlets and 
books, participated in international conferences and collectively 
established the militant, if hidden, history of the US labor movement.

People like Howard Zinn and Edmund Kovacs made us feel special because 
they believed that we were special. All of the old-timers were willing 
to sit down and talk politics or answer questions with patience and good 
humor. They knew, through their own experiences, that workers are 
capable of being artists, writers and intellectuals of the highest 
order. They understood our potential better than we did – because they 
themselves had been transformed by their experiences in the movement.

They knew and appreciated their own place in history. When I heard the 
news that Howard Zinn had died, I remembered his remark at the beginning 
of the special program on PBS  - when he walked on stage to thunderous 
applause, the first thing he said was - okay let's not overdo it. I 
don’t think this was false modesty, but an understanding that he was a 
product of historic class struggles, and his individual accomplishments 
could only be appreciated and celebrated in that context.

The names of thousands of revolutionary leaders will remain unknown - 
but that does not negate their enormous contribution to their class. I 
believe that the greatest lesson of Zinn, Kovacs and those little known 
rebels was this - working people have the potential, both collectively 
and individually, to change history.

Mike Alewitz


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