Some aspects of
Sam Marcy’s life

By Deirdre Griswold

Marxists don’t look at history in the same way bourgeois historians do: as an aimless succession of events propelled by "Great Men." Society evolves not because of kings or presidents, but because of broad changes in the way the masses of people interact with each other and with the material world in their daily struggle for existence.

In writing about the death of Sam Marcy, the founder of Workers World Party, and trying to summarize his contributions to the world communist movement, it is important to view him in the perspectives of space and time. How can one really appreciate his impact otherwise?

He was a thoroughgoing internationalist who spent all but his early childhood years in just two cities in the United States: New York and Buffalo, N.Y. Yet Sam came to be respected by revolutionaries all over the world.

The span of his life—1911 to 1998—encompassed all the great revolutions of this century. He studied these revolutions intently. Yet most of his political energy was spent upholding revolutionary Marxism in an environment of deep reaction.

A poor kid in a potato sack

Comrade Sam came to this country as a young child from a small village in Russia. He remembered having worn a rough potato sack for clothing. He remembered being dragged to a neighbor’s one snowy night to escape the "Whites"—bands of counterrevolutionaries who terrorized Jewish villages. He remembered the Red Army coming later—"our army."

Sam was too young to have been politically involved in the Russian Revolution. But his personality always bore the stamp of those days. He never was confused about which side to be on in the worldwide class struggle. To the marrow of his bones, he was with the oppressed.

He understood the enormous accomplishments of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. Illiterate, starving, war weary, the workers and peasant farmers of Russia and the other lands oppressed by czar ism had stormed the heavens, thrown out the ruling class and set up a workers’ state. It was the first time in history this had succeeded. With all its later vicissitudes, the Soviet Union inspired the workers and oppressed all over the world. It help ed other revolutions break the imperialist grip. And it survived until the Yeltsin counterrevolution.

To leftists who had earlier given up on the Soviet Union, Comrade Sam would say, "Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water."

Every revolutionary wants to organize, write about and lead revolutions. It fell to Sam that his major work had to be about a counterrevolution—"Perestroika: A Marxist Critique," published in 1990. He wrote it during a time when so many experienced Marxists were devastated and paralyzed by the news coming out of the Soviet Union. Others were completely thrown into the bourgeois camp by Gorbachev’s capitulation, vainly hoping for something good to come of it.

Sam followed events there with concentrated energy, refusing to allow his feelings to interfere with his analytical judgment. Nor would he trivialize the issues involved by reducing the problem to the treachery of leaders, important as leadership is.

Week after week in articles in Workers World, he went over the deep political issues that communists in the Soviet Union have had to address from the very beginning: the national question, the property forms, how to stimulate the economy in a socialist direction, how to deal with the imperialist bourgeoisie that was trying to strangle them.

Sam could look reality in the face without losing his bearings. When the working class suffers great setbacks—as has happened many times—it takes an unusual kind of strength to be able to acknowledge what has happened, not try to "prettify" it, as he was fond of saying, and then to concentrate on what can be done to move forward again.

Sam drew his strength from the party he built. Workers World Party became the embodiment of his optimism.

But was it really possible to build a party based on the revolutionary conceptions of Marx, Engels and Lenin in the United States in the middle of the 20th century? In 1959, to be exact, when anti-communist reaction had swept the country? And with only a few fellow thinkers in a couple of cities?

Sam turned that question around. If an independent communist party like Workers World could be built here, then wouldn’t its very existence show that revolutionary Marxism can draw nourishment from the social soil of the most developed capitalist country on earth?

This went to the very roots of Marxism itself. For didn’t the socialists of the 19th century say that capitalism’s tempestuous development laid the basis for a reconstruction of human relations? Capitalism had overtaken feudal stagnation and unleashed dynamic growth of the means of production. For the first time, it was possible to foresee a society of abundance. But only a socialist revolution could make this available to the working people. The workers in the industrialized countries flocked to the socialist banner.

The 20th century, however, showed that capitalism’s new stage, imperialism, had bought time for the ruling classes in the West by super-exploiting the peoples of the Third World. That blunted the revolutionary spirit of the Western proletariat—while transferring it to those countries where class and national oppression combined to make a living hell.

The revolutionary center of gravity has shifted to the East, Sam wrote in one of his documents analyzing the Chinese and Korean revolutions. He followed them with great excitement, recognizing long before others in the left here that world political conditions had brought the proletariat to the forefront in these overwhelmingly agrarian countries. It was socialist revolution, not the national bourgeoisie, that would carry out the task of national liberation.

An organizer of workers

Sam developed his world outlook not in some ivory tower but while organizing workers here.

"Marxism is as Marxism does," he would say. Get out and find the issues on the minds of the workers and oppressed. Find a way to intervene so as to strengthen their independence from the ruling class and its many instruments.

Sam had early on become a creative workers’ organizer. In New York at the end of the Depression, he was attorney and organizational secretary for a union of paper box workers, mostly low-paid women. He and his companion, Dorothy Ballan, built a militant grouping within the union and led a successful strike. Later he and Dotty moved to Buffalo, where his tactical skills soon earned him a reputation among labor militants.

Buffalo was a strategic city full of heavy industry. During World War II, companies like Bethlehem Steel, Chevrolet, Westinghouse and Bell Aircraft became immensely rich on government contracts with a guaranteed profit. But wages were frozen at Depression-era levels.

By 1946, returning soldiers were back in the plants and the pent-up militancy of the workers burst out in a strike wave. Sam was consulted, often surreptitiously, by the strike leaders. He always had good ideas on how to get around court injunctions, how to bring out the solidarity of workers in other industries. One night a strike leader, knowing the authorities were trying to serve him with an injunction, had to jump over back fences and sneak down alleys to get to a meeting with Sam.

After Dotty, Sam’s closest collaborator was Vince Copeland, a leader in the steel plant. Just as they saw the vanguard role of Third World revolutionary movements, Sam and Vince recognized that Black workers in the U.S. were the force pushing the unions forward, even though a period of reaction was setting in. More than anything else, class solidarity depended on fighting racism. Their organizing all through the late 1940s and 1950s, in the plants and in the communities, was aimed at strengthening Black-white unity.

Later, after forming Workers World Party, Sam would keep returning to Lenin’s views on the national question. His unique contribution was to adapt them to the U.S. Here, he said, oppressed nations did not necessarily live in a distinct territory, or speak a separate language. Racism kept national oppression alive through a complex web of restrictions enforced by legal and extra-legal terror.

Communists must support self-determination for all the nationally oppressed within the borders of the U.S.—African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Native people. Should there be integration? Federation? Separation? It was up to the oppressed themselves to decide what political forms would facilitate their freedom.

This was the theoretical underpinning for WWP’s militant support of the liberation movements that began in the 1960s—the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, the Organization of Afro-American Unity under Malcolm X, the Deacons for Defense and Justice.

Catching the new wind of the 1960s

Despite his enormous drive, his single-mindedness and his keen tactical sense, Sam Marcy never had the chance to lead a revolution. But he brought revolutionary consciousness to a new generation of militants who joined WWP during the upsurge of the 1960s. That was a youthful, heady time. Everyone over 30 was suspect. Everything was going to be accomplished in a few years.

Yet here was this older guy speaking every week about the problems of the socialist countries, go ing over the subtleties of what imperialism was up to, talking about the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, about the Palestinian struggle, the Cuban Revolution, and what it all had to do with 1848, the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution.

In between meetings, he was urging the younger comrades to get out and demonstrate, to confront the racists and the warmongers whenever possible. And he’d be the first one on the picket line, beaming at their success.

Sam walked around New York with a pocketful of change, making so many phone calls from the local diners that they thought he must be a bookie. Because he was at all times an organizer. Every recruit had to be talked to. He wanted to know them and their problems. He encouraged them to speak, to write, to take political responsibil ity. The development of an ordinary worker into a communist was what delighted him the most.

He learned from the newer comrades. He and Dotty listened carefully to what some of the youth had to say about the cruelties inflicted on lesbians and gay men. They looked again into Frederick Engels’ "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State." They encouraged gay comrades to develop an historical, Marxist outlook on why same-sex love came to be oppressed. And then, after raising it to the Party as a whole and stimulating much discussion, they threw the whole weight of the organization behind the gay liberation movement, hailing the Stonewall Rebellion soon after it occurred in 1969.

There are many chapters to Sam Marcy’s life, and we hope in the coming issues of Workers World to cover more of them.

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