A Memory of George Novack

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Michael Steven Smith

I WORKED WITH George Novack (who died July 30) at Pathfinder Press, the publishing arm of the Socialist Workers Party, in the early 1970s at the party’s building on West Street in Greenwich Village. He was one of the editors, along with George Weissman and George Breitman–the “three Georges” we called them.

Weissman, like Novack, was from Boston and had too, like Novack, been educated at Harvard. George Breitman was a self-taught working class intellectual from Newark. The three Georges were a great team, presiding at Pathfinder during its salad days when there was money to publish books and pamphlets, and a newly radicalized movement to read tens of thousands of copies of our titles.

We published more topical pamphlets than anyone except the government. Ernest Mandel’s Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory was an annual “best seller.” So were Malcolm X’s speeches, and DuBois’ and Debs’ and Che’s, who spoke of the necessity to “create one, two, many Vietnams.”

Some years we published up to thirty books and as many pamphlets. We put out some of the first volumes on women’s liberation. Novack, with his intellectual antennae up, was early to perceive the revolutionary implications of the new wave of feminism and wrote a pamphlet “The Dynamics of Women’s Liberation,” so for a while we called him Georgia.

We published a book of Black prison poetry, a volume of feminist plays and appreciations of John Coltrane and Lenny Bruce. We published Marxist classics like Engels’ The Origins of Private Property, The Family and the State, with an introduction by George’s companion, the feminist anthropologist Evelyn Reed. Reed herself wrote the provocative Pathfinder title Woman’s Evolution, spending twenty years crafting it in their booklined Chelsea studio apartment.

We put out a history of the Haymarket martyrs in Chicago; a volume on Black soldiers in the Civil War; James P. Cannon’s wise testimony as a defendant in the first Smith Act trial; a book on Watergate; a volume on Chile and Allende’s overthrow; Art Preis’ great work Labor’s Giant Step on the rise of the CIO; and George Breitman’s edition of The Writings of Leon Trotsky.

We got these titles out to classrooms, libraries, demonstrations and bookstores here and abroad. Pathfinder had the SWP’s quarter million dollar web press, which we bought ourselves, set up ourselves, and then startled the publishing community when we demonstrated that it could be used not only for newspapers, for which it was intended, but for quality paperback books as well.

I remember the rally at Oberlin College where most of the money for the press was raised. Novack was the main fund raiser. A learned and handsome man with a gentle demeanor, George wasn’t a fluid public speaker. He didn’t speak extemporaneously or from notes, but wrote out and read his presentations. This one, as usual, was full of alliterations and endearingly corny puns.

Novack raised the money for the publication of Teamster Rebellion, written by participant Farrell Dobbs, which recounted the two 1934 Minneapolis general strikes, led by the Trotskyists in the Teamsters union, which made Minneapolis a union town and launched the Teamsters as an industrial union across eleven midwestern states.

George asked two University of Wisconsin radicals, Pam Goodman and Don Lichty, for help on the project. Affable and approachable, yet serious and scholarly, Novack was well liked by the generation thirty years his junior. Don, Pam and George were on the same wave-length and they responded on the spot, thus guaranteeing that Dobbs’ important work would get out.

The first title Pathfinder had ever published–Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism–was collated by hand in the apartment of a Chicago member in the mid-forties. But Pathfinder at the time of the three Georges got the movement wind in its sails and became truly professional.

A manuscript changed into a beautiful book in little time. A professional artist would design the cover and layout, an editor would make it crisp and sharp, an ISBN number would be obtained from the Library of Congress, the promotion department would solicit and usually obtain reviews in the right places.

A full-time salesperson was kept on the road, pushing the line of titles. Volunteers from the SWP and its campus youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance, would get Pathfinder books and pamphlets to wholesalers, bookstores and classrooms.

When Pathfinder expanded in the late sixties, Novack (who too was in his sixties) was an experienced publishing man attuned to the new radicalization. He had run the advertising department of a major publishing house. He could conceive of a needed work, raise money for it, edit it or write it himself, and then suggest promotional ideas.

Pathfinder shrank with the subsiding of the movement in the 1970s. The demoralized SWP leadership–with Novack remaining silent–embraced Castroism politically and organizationally. The few titles they now print are often odd and irrelevant. Yet Pathfinder in its halcyon days made a tremendous contribution to the spread of left culture; and its achievements stand as a model for how a relatively small group of socialists can have an impact on the intellectual and political life of our country.

November-December 1992, ATC 41