I didn’t know Marty
well, but when I heard of his death on December 17, 2001, I felt I had lost an
old friend. Marty was active in the workers’ movement for almost 70 years, as a
writer, agitator, activist and teacher. His death is a tremendous loss to those
who knew him.
joined the Socialist Party youth group in 1932 when he was 13-years old.
Although he came from a social-democratic family, he said he joined the SP
because it was the only organization in his area. Asked why he joined at 13, he
replied they would not take him any younger.
While in the
Socialist Party, Marty met the American Trotskyists, who in 1933 had dissolved
their public organization and entered the party. When they left in 1937 to form
their own organization, the Socialist Workers Party, Marty went with them.
year Marty happened to see CLR James speak in New York. James, a brilliant
speaker and writer, had come to the U.S. on a speaking tour and had been
persuaded to stay. Marty described seeing James as a “remarkable experience…he
left a first impression on me that I never forgot.”
When a faction
fight broke out in the SWP in 1939 over the question of the nature of the Soviet
Union, Marty, along with James supported the minority position. In 1940, the
party split and 40 percent of the adult party and a majority of the youth split
away to form the Workers Party. James and Marty were among those who left to
form the Workers Party under the leadership of Max Shachtman.
In 1941 James and
Raya Dunayevskaya, a former secretary of Trotsky who differed with Shachtman,
formed a minority tendency in the WP, which became known as the Johnson-Forest
tendency after the pseudonyms of its leaders James (Johnson) and Dunayevskaya
(Forest). Grace Boggs was the third leader of the group.
Johnson-Forest tendency left the WP to return to the SWP in 1946, but prior to
formally joining they published the first English translations of some of Marx’s
early writings, a pamphlet on the American worker, works on state capitalism,
and a remarkable study of Hegel. During this time they began the process that
would reject the hallmark of Leninism, the vanguard party.
Johnson-Forest tendency left the SWP in 1952 and became an independent
organization with their own newspaper, Correspondence. One of the
remarkable things about Correspondence was the method called by Dunayev-
skaya “the full fountain pen.” The members of the group actively sought to hear
from workers and wrote down their words.
Although he was a
writer and an editor of Correspondence, Marty also spent 20 years in the
automobile industry and the fruits of this can be seen in such pamphlets as
Punching Out and Be His Wages High or Low. In the 1990s Bewick
Editions published a collection of Marty’s poems about life on the shop floor
under the title The Factory Songs of Mr. Toad.
radical group at the height of the McCarthy period was not an easy task. Just
prior to the launching of the paper James had been deported. In 1955, the group
split, with Dunayevskaya taking a majority to form News & Letters. A
second split in the early 1960s further reduced the group.
While the themes
of workers self-organization had an influence in the 1960s when libertarian
socialism seemed more in accord with the times than the stodgy old left, it did
little to help the fortunes of the group, now renamed Facing Reality. Marty
taught a class on Marx’s Capital to future members of DRUM and the League
of Revolutionary Black Workers, but he admitted this didn’t translate into
recruits, funds, or even articles for their newsletter. At Marty’s insistence
Facing Reality dissolved in 1970.
Reality wound down, but years before CLR James was “discovered” by the academy,
Marty established Bewick Editions to keep James’s work in print. Marty also
taught at Wayne State University, wrote several books including Wartime
Strikes and Working for Wages, and contributed a steady stream of
letters and reviews to a number of radical journals across North America.
In his 1980 book
Wartime Strikes, Marty discussed the struggle against the no-strike pact
in the United Auto Workers during WWII. In the UAW, along with other unions
there was pressure to sign a no-strike pact. At the 1944 convention resolutions
in support of and in opposition to the no-strike pact were defeated. A
compromise resolution, however, which called for a postal ballot was accepted.
Less that half of the ballots were returned, but,, of those who bothered to
vote, a majority re-affirmed the no-strike position. Coincidently, at the same
time as this vote was taking place a majority of UAW members engaged in wildcat
strikes. When asked about this Marty answered: “That was the whole point to
Wartime Strikes. The idea that in the UAW in World War II, a majority voted to
sustain the no-strike pledge and, while that vote was taking place, a majority
of auto- workers went on strike. So what the hell do they believe: A no-strike
pledge or that they had the right to go on strike? It’s contradictory. They
believed you should have a no-strike pledge, but when the foreman looked at them
that way, they walked off the job.”
That was what
Marx was about. Marx says it doesn’t matter what that worker thinks or even the
working class as a whole thinks, it’s a matter of what they will be forced to
do. They are forced to resist the nature of work.
becoming worse. Every report about the new automated work, all I hear from
anybody out of the auto-shop is the greater speed-up. If somebody tells me
workers are saying ‘great, I love to be here.’ OK, I’ll give up on the
revolution, but we’re not even close to anything like that.”
long career there was a constant focus on the working class as agent of its own
liberation. In practice, this meant a rejection of the Leninist vanguard party,
but curiously, given his role in the destruction of workers’ power in Russia,
not of Lenin. For Marty, and also for CLR James, Lenin remained a figure of
great importance, from whom important lessons could still be learned.
contact with Marty was when I wrote to him asking for permission to re-publish,
in an edited form, his introduction to CLR James’s brief account of democracy in
ancient Greece, Any Cook Can Govern. In 1998, I contacted Marty and
visited him in December. I kept in touch with Marty and in January 2001, along
with two friends, I interviewed him about his life and thoughts for the future.
The interview was later transcribed and published as the pamphlet
I met Marty fewer
than a dozen times, although I also had communication with him through email,
phone, and letter. I last saw him in the fall of 2000 when he came to Toronto to
start a Capital class with some folks here. People were impressed, not only with
Marty’s knowledge and experience, but also that, at the age of 82, he would be
willing to travel the four hours by car to talk politics with people.
communication with Marty was a few weeks before his death. He wrote me a short
note expressing his satisfaction with the pamphlet and asking for more copies.
He will be missed. Z
edits Red & Black Notes in Toronto, Canada.