In Honor of Max Geldman

Against the Current No. 19, March/April 1989

Leslie Evans

I FIRST MET Max at the end of the summer of 1961. L had just joined the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) at Los Angeles City College, and that fall l was transferring to UCLA. The only other YSA member at UCLA at that time was Michael Geldman, Max’s son from his first marriage.

Michael and l tried to take on the campus in a big way for an organization of two: we started a weekly on-campus forum series, launched a chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and eventually started a printed biweekly newsletter that got us into more than one fist fight with the campus right wingers.

Every school day l picked Michael up on my motor scooter at his parents’ apartment in the Fairfax district, and, more often than not, stopped in on the way home to sit around and discuss strategy with Max and Shevi. After a while I started showing up there for Sunday breakfast.

We would polish off a mountain of bagels and cream cheese, drink lots of strong coffee, and alternate between Michael and me telling our adventures of the week and Max and Shevi talking about the work of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) branch or war stories from the old days.

Max was already fifty-six then. He was short and feisty. Forty-eight years after leaving his native Poland he still spoke with as light an accent If he had been born a generation earlier he would have been a rabbi-it fitted him. He was learned in the way of a rabbi. He had devoured thousands of books, but his was an oral, not a written tradition. His scholarship peppered his discussion and his public speeches. It was a face-to-face affair, not something to be written down for an audience you couldn’t see. There was something sensitive in his eyes, and sensuous in his mouth.

But the other-worldly scholar had been secularized in the loss of faith of the modem era. Max had been a communist since he was twenty-one, a Trotskyist since twenty-five, and had been immersed in the labor radicalism of the Great Depression.

This required a kind of public toughness that Max, I always thought, had picked up from the gangster movies of the 1930s. He bore a striking resemblance to Edward G. Robinson, the classic Jewish movie tough guy.

In the thirties Max used to convulse his friends with his uncannily accurate rendition of Robinson’s Little Caesar. In his family albums there are several old photos of Max and some of the Minneapolis Teamsters standing in a farmhouse yard in black 0vercoats, snap brim hats pulled down over their eyes, cigarettes dangling from their lips, looking every inch part of the Capone mob.

A Life of Politics

Most people are defined by what they do for a living. That wasn’t true for Max. Max’s life outside of his family circle was defined by his political activity, compared to which the jobs he did to put bread on the table were almost accidental. If you asked Max for the story of his life he would invariably respond by telling you what branches of the Socialist Workers Party he had been a member of.

When Max came out of prison in1945 he and Goldie moved to Philadelphia. There Max became the branch organizer. As World War II ended and the unions dropped their wartime no-strike pledge, there came a brief flicker of the old labor radicalism. All you had to do to recruit new members, Max would say, was to go out and hold a street-comer meeting.

Max had his own technique for drawing a crowd. He would stand on a busy comer and suddenly shout, “I’ve been robbed!” People would gather around him, and sooner or later someone would always ask, “Who robbed you?” That was Max’s cue. He would reply, “The capitalist class robbed me!” — and the meeting would begin.

Max was forty years old in 1945. He had spent his life in the movement and had no saleable skills. So he took a job collecting insurance premiums door-to-door, walking miles every day, collecting a quarter a week from people to maintain their health insurance policies.

In the spring of 1952, with Goldie dying of cancer, the family moved to Los Angeles. Here Max continued selling insurance until the McCarthy witch-hunt closed off even this marginal occupation.

The FBI had Max called in front of the State Insurance Commission, which demanded that he name names of other radicals or have his license revoked. Max refused and lost his insurance license. After that he sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. That fall, Goldie died.

The next year, 1953, Max was remarried, to Shevi, and they left for Chicago to try to make a new start.

The left as a whole was in rapid decline. The vision of a hardy band of Marxist organizers linked to growing detachments of a militant union movement, which had seemed very real in the1930s, faded. Small, aging groups maintained dingy offices in a dozen old industrial cities.

The SWP held classes, gave forums, maintained a tenuous presence in a few radical union locals, ran election campaigns to a largely hostile public. As it became more isolated, the party began to exhibit a destructive dynamic: discipline would lapse, sections of the membership and leadership would drift away. Many of those who remained tried to protect the group’s survival by lashing out at dissent or criticism of all kinds. Max and Shevi received their first taste of this negative underside of the American Trotskyist movement in Chicago.

A demoralizing split occurred in 1953 in which a large part of the trade-union core of the SWP was expelled. The national leadership in New York and the state leadership in California blamed each other for exacerbating the split. And, as the national leadership was dominant, a number of reprisals were taken against members with political ties to California, particularly those associated with James P. Cannon and Murry Weiss. Max was singled out by name for criticism after the 1954 party convention. In Chicago a motion was passed, aimed primarily at Max and Shevi, prohibiting any political discussion between members except on the branch floor and during executive committee meetings. The result was two years of official ostracism. Almost their only ally in the branch was Alice Peurala, who later left the SWP and had a distinguished career as the only woman president of a local of the Steelworkers Union.

That experience tested Max’s loyalty to the organization to the limit It also confirmed in him a lifelong tendency to make up his own mind and take nothing on faith, even from leaders of his own party.

A reconciliation took place in 1956, when Max was asked to become organizer of the Newark branch. He served there until late 1960, when he and Shevi returned to Los Angeles to stay. Through 1963 they headed the SWP’s forum committee, building it up from nothing to a regular weekly event with usually about a hundred people in attendance. In addition to providing a platform for visiting party speakers, dozens of figures of the several Marxist and Black left spoke there.

I remember in that period Max, Shevi and I even wrote and put on a musical play for May Day, called “From the Finland Station to Havana,” complete with dramatic readings from famous revolutionary poems and speeches, and a live chorus.

In 1967 Max’s son Michael died of Hodgkins’ disease. It was a dreadful blow to both Max and Shevi, and they both withdrew from political activity for several years. Max took some part in the antiwar activity at the end of the 1960s andearly1970s. Later, he and Shevi were part of the leadership of one of the small branches — this one was in Pacoima (CA) — that the party briefly experimented with around 1975.

For a living Max sold hearing aids for a company founded by an ex-party member. By all accounts, he wasn’t a good businessman. He worried too much about his customers, and gave away the used hearing aids to customers who couldn’ t afford new ones.

Critical Re-evaluations

By 1981, Max was largely ignored by the SWP. At seventy-six he had no assignments. A far younger leadership had been firmly entrenched in the branch for a decade. They were engaged in a campaign to send the party into industry, to harden it up on the model of the Central American revolutionaries. They suggested to Max several times that he would serve the party better by dropping to the rank of a sympathizer, to raise the general level of activity.

Then a strange thing happened. After fifty-one years in the party, Max went into opposition. And the most remarkable thing is that virtually everyone involved underestimated the seriousness of having Max Geldman as an opponent.

Max objected to the blanket policy of sending people into industry when he felt there was no real motion there. He disagreed with giving priority to defending Khomeini in Iran over defense of the Iranian Left from Khomeini.

I have no wish here to go into the issues of Max’s last dispute with the SWP, except in one respect. The opposition that Max helped to create in Los Angeles was a national phenomenon and led to expulsions around the country throughout 1983. An important part of that opposition saw it as a struggle to retain the old Trotskyism against illegitimate innovations by the SWP central leadership. I don’t think Max saw it quite that way. The SWP majority argued that Trotskyism, whatever correct positions it might have on particular issues, had also become a church with its own ritual, and that this ritual was an insurmountable obstacle to fusion with any new radical movement that came along. In my opinion, Max was one of the few older opposition leaders who agreed with that. And that agreement marked him as someone who was thinking some dramatically new thoughts in his last years and doing some difficult reevaluation of the political creed that had absorbed his life.

In effect, the old Trotskyism had dis­ solved, and each person who had been involved in it had to decide where to go next and what to prioritize. The SWP majority prioritized revolutionary centralism, extreme discipline, and attempts to integrate themselves programmatically with prominent anti-imperialist revolutionary leaderships, particularly the Cubans, the Iranians, and the Salvadorans.

Max, on the contrary, prioritized inner party democracy, tolerance of divergent ideas and groups. Whereas the SWP found itself attracted to groups in the orbit of world Stalinism that carried out revolutionary actions aimed at seizing power, Max found himself attracted to currents, including within the so-called Stalinist countries, such as Gorbachev and his reform program, that were working to democratize the bureaucratic structure. For Max, the old Marxist truism that class determines all was not enough: it is not only who rules, but how they rule.

At the beginning there were only Max and Shevi and Milt and Tybe Genecin in the Los Angeles opposition. Soon they were joined by Dave Cooper, and then by Tom Kerry, one of the venerable old central leaders, who now had second thoughts. By August 1982 when I returned to Los Angeles after eighteen years on party assignment in other cities, I found the branch a hotbed of opposition.

Normally, Max would have preferred, of course, to belong to an openly declared faction. Under the conditions in the party at that time, such an announcement would have led to immediate expulsion. Undeterred, Max carried on in the old Bolshevik style, with an underground group.

About a third of the branch were meeting secretly in defiance of the prohibition on factions, often at Max and Shevi’s house. I must say I admired the commanders of this little army, although there was something sad also in seeing them after fifty or so years reduced to a handful of graybeards and middle-aged youths like myself struggling toward inevitable expulsion from the organization, also in decline, on which they had staked their life’s work.

I called them the over-the-hill gang, which would get a rueful laugh out of Max. But he wouldn’t give up no matter how dim the prospects. It was important for him to act honorably, not to figure on the odds of winning. That’s how Max was. A little like Don Quixote trying to right the wrongs of the world with nothing but a rusty sword and a broken down horse.

But you didn’t love Max because he was a great success. You loved him because he was Max.

March-April 1989, ATC 19

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