Sid Lens, 1912-1986

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Patrick Quinn

ALTHOUGH HE CHOSE to describe himself, as the title of his autobiography suggests, as an “unrepentant radical,” Sidney Lens was much more than that. Until the day of his death from cancer on June 18, he was an unrepentant revolutionary socialist.

Despite efforts by several of his eulogists to recall Lens as a radical writer, as a militant trade unionist, or even as a pacifist, he remained to his death a committed socialist whose stated goal was a revolutionary transformation of capitalist property relations in the United States and throughout the world.

Indeed, one of his last political activities was a speech warning of the dangers of sectarianism that he gave at the founding convention of Solidarity in Chicago in March. He was the guiding inspiration for conferences on “Socialism and Activism” on both coasts during the past year.

Born on January 28, 1912 in Newark, New Jersey of recently-immigrated Russian Jewish parents, Sidney Okun, as he was known until 1930 when he changed his name to Lens to circumvent a union blacklist, grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

He graduated from Hebrew School at the age of 13, and from DeWitt Clinton High School at 17. His father had died when Lens was three, and following high school he worked at a series of low-paying jobs where he first became acquainted with union organizing and Marxism.

When the Great Depression began in October 1929, Lens was working as a runner for a Wall Street brokerage firm for a wage of $15 per week.

In the fall of 1934 Lens joined the Communist League of America, the American Trotskyist organization that had been founded by James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman and others six years earlier.

In 1936, the American Trotskyists dissolved their organization and entered the Socialist Party, but without Lens, who with Hugo Oehler, Thomas Stamm and a few other Trotskyists, founded their own small organization, the Revolutionary Workers League, which served as Lens’ political home for the next decade.

During World War II Lens became an organizer for the United Service Employees Union, a position he held until 1966.

In the wake of World War II with McCarthyism on the rise, Lens left the RWL and began a new political life as an independent, eclectic socialist writer and agitator, the role for which he became so widely known over the next four decades. As he put it “I made the transition from the intensely purposive activity of the previous dozen years to a looser form of political activity unrelated to centralist parties or grouplets.”

Maintaining his base as a union organizer during the 1950s, Lens began writing what would eventually be eighteen books, most of which dealt with the trade union movement, socialism and militarism. He also began contributing what would become many hundreds of articles to various progressive journals and magazines including most notably the Progressive and the Nation.

But during this period, as during his entire life, Lens was primarily an activist. Virtually every progressive struggle that occurred in Chicago would find Lens at its center, either as an initiator or supporter. As the United States escalated the war against Vietnam during the 1960s, Lens became perhaps the central leader of the antiwar movement in Chicago and one of the key leaders of the movement nationally. He played an important role in assembling the massive national demonstrations against the war held in Washington and engaged in a wide variety of other antiwar activities.

As the Vietnam war ended Lens characteristically turned to the building of other movements–against the threat of nuclear war, against U.S. involvement in Central America, and for building a socialist movement in the United States.

A mere chronology of his political life, and a skeletal one at that (for a much fuller chronicle, see his autobiography, Unrepentant Radical, Boston: Beacon Press, 1980), cannot serve as an adequate testimony to Sidney Lens.

Sid was argumentative and could be infuriating–as for example in 1981, when he responded to the suppression of the Polish workers’ movement by blaming Solidarnosc and its leadership for “provoking” the imposition of martial law. This apology for bureaucratic repression, so out of keeping with everything he worked and struggled for, could not be shaken in many hours of discussion. However, this tragic mistake did not prevent Sidney Lens from continuing to work with us and radicals of all opinions in the struggle for social justice in this country.

Sidney Lens’ death leaves a very real void on the left in Chicago and throughout the country. He will be much missed, but his legacy as an unrepentant socialist will serve well as an inspiration for generations of militants to come, much as his life enriched the revolutionary struggles of our times.

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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