Max Geldman, 1905-1988, A Lifetime of Struggle

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

Andrea Houtman

WHEN SOMEONE JOINS a protest against injustice, that is a contribution; and when someone helps to organize and bring others into that protest, that’s an even bigger contribution.

But when a person has it in him/herself to pursue an understanding of the causes of injustice, and devotes his life to the historic interests of working men and women, devotes his entire life to the struggle to build a revolutionary party of the American working class and of the world working class-that person is rare and his contribution irreplaceable.

]’m talking about Max Geldman, of whom we’ve come together to share our impressions and memories. I came to know Max over the last several years of his life, and want to stress  to you what impresses me as central to who Max was.

The continuity of Max’s life encapsulates the history of party building in the United States, from his youth until the last breath, from his membership in the youth group of the Communist Party (CP), to joining the Communist League of America in 1929, his founding of the Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International, and his most recent efforts in Solidarity.

The decision to join the League took a lot — the vast majority of the CP’s membership wasn’t able to rise above the intimidation of the leadership. James P. Cannon describes this time as the dog days of the Left Opposition, when the CP was big and we were a small handful. Max travelled halfway across the country to find and join a band of Trotskyists.

1his small band appeared unpromising to those who didn’t share with Max his unbreakable belief in the importance of the vigorous, unflinching pursuit of knowing material reality, of not being turned from seeking the truth, regardless of its relatively temporary organizational housings; the importance of the class struggle and the socialist future; the importance of party-building and the importance of workers’ democracy.

Max knew that material reality exists, while the subjective factor within it, the organizations created by revolutionaries, can and does degenerate; and yet the need for a revolutionary party continues with all its vitality.

And as their former comrades now threw bricks from roof tops upon them, convinced by their leadership to the point of violence that these members of the League were police agents, Max stuck, as he did for a lifetime to come, to that commitment to these principles that was to be the continuity in him, and that I came to know some sixty years later.

Teamster Organizing

It was Max who was chosen by the League and sent to Minneapolis to organize the unemployed in alliance with the General Drivers Local 574 of the Teamsters. Max was a mass leader, and with this work contributed immediately and directly to the history of the class struggle. We, to this day, live with the legacy of the victory won by the Minneapolis general strike. And he was more than a mass leader, he was a spreader of ideas, a teacher, and a dogged party­ builder. Dobbs attributes the recruitment to the League from the Federal Workers Section to Max Geldman.

And throughout the years, particularly during the second dog days of McCarthyism, when it again took a rare person lo stick to his/her political beliefs and activity, Max was assigned to serve as branch organizer in cities from one coast to the other.

During the last few years Max, who had experienced many ups and downs in the movement and in his personal life, received one of the hardest blows of his political life, when he believed he was undemocratically expelled from the party he had helped found. His political life seemed so utterly shattered around him that he came to tell me, in an honest and dark mood, that he now wondered if it had been worth it all.

But Max was made of that rare stuff of real, unidealized human strength. it was in these years that I learned from him precisely what the strength of a true revolutionary is all about.

Just as in his poems, which all begin contemplating the meaning of life’s pain and conclude always with the reaffirmation of life, Max picked himself up from the blows that might have sent other younger men scurrying off to find theoretical justification for an embittered retreat Let me read a verse from one of them:

As a spendthrift rashly spending his inheritance,
Do I toss these days into the chasm of time —
Into the formless agitations of the primal slime
Where they will lend a measure of defiance,
To the days to come, the hours yet unborn,
For other men to praise or dully scorn.

This poem, written in 1940, towards the end of Max’s first prison a key leader of the Minneapolis unemployed, captures a defiant spirit in him that was also continuous.

Max was a militant fighter for his class, and so he was not to be long in brooding-not this man who had stood up to the pressures of Stalinist degeneration, stood up to physical threats from his former CP comrades, threats from the FBI, from the National Guard, judges and wardens, to McCarthyism and the many personal tragedies he had had to withstand. Not this man who had never been cowed by any leadership not lo read or lo think for himself, who had never been cowed by any leadership into believing it had and had the right to keep a secret monopoly on truth.

No Business as Usual

And the other thread of continuity is that Max was a good thinker, not a thinker in blacks and whites, not a dogmatist; which is why he was such a good teacher and good tactician.

Max was wise enough, even given his age, to know that you don’t just go and xerox the old organizational documents and hand them out as a basis for structuring a new formation after a crisis on that order, not if you can think. You don’t go on, business as usual, as if nothing had happened. You re-evaluate. It’s your obligation.

And Max was wise enough to look also, as a convinced Leninist, and as Lenin himself had done, at the actual circumstances in which party-building is to be carried out. And when he did this, he saw not a period of mass working class upsurge, but a non-revolutionary period in the imperialist countries, in which the left had become ingrown, relatively isolated from the class, and encrusted with decades of accumulated positions of secondary importance which self-intoxicated leaderships perpetuated as fundamental principle.

He was open to learning, to thinking new thoughts, as part of the continuity that combined with his unbroken, tenacious hold on the principles of his youth. And so Max joined in the regroupment project of the revolutionary left that has been begun by Solidarity, and he remained an active member and a human inspiration. Max was always on top of things. He was, magnifying glass in hand, highly interested in developments in the Soviet Union, and continually prodding comrades to checkout the discussions in the CP.

In the last weeks of his life he worked on a branch educational to teach the lessons of the class struggle to younger comrades. He had plans to write a history of the Communist League of America, with the intention of humanizing the people involved in it. Max believed this was important because he had seen too much of the destructive tendency toward deification of the human material at the head of revolutionary organizations.

His last work in regrouping the revolutionary left, and his concerns to leave this legacy, strike me most deeply as evidence of his strength. His patience, when he spent many hours with younger comrades, giving oral histories, working on educationals, and his wonderful humor also are precious memories.

As times are not always that easy on the left these days, he would take time to remind comrades of the other difficult times the left has seen, to put things in perspective. Max told me a story about his assignment to go to Philadelphia to organize the branch during the McCarthy period. On getting the assignment a comrade from Philadelphia opened a drawer full of documents to help orient Max. Max said, “No, no, no, I’d rather go there blank.”

When he got to town he found a branch of seven comrades and, he said, seven factions as well. I can still remember the gleeful strain in his voice as he tried hard to control his laughter so he could talk. A year later that branch was over fifty, and a majority of it was Black. It was the beginning of the civil rights movement.

My love for Max is more than my respect for his revolutionary record, it is for his warmth, his humor, his patience, his wisdom, and for the continuity of his capacity as a revolutionary thinker, that lasted to the end, and is his legacy,

For other men to praise or dully scorn.

January-February 1989, ATC 18

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