Peter Dawidowicz, 1943-1994

Against the Current, No. 53, November/December 1994

Nancy Holmstrom

PETER DAWIDOWICZ DIED of lung cancer on August 10, 1994. He is survived by his wife, Peggy Conte, two children Julia (6) and Joran (2), a sister, a stepsister and a stepbrother.

Peter will be missed not only by his family, but by most everyone who ever knew him. Peter was a committed revolutionary socialist and an exceptional human being, exemplifying in his personal life the political values he espoused: commitment to democracy, genuine care and respect for people.

Intensely likable, generous, genuinely collaborative and with a sense of humor, he was a pleasure to work with. Although Peter hated capitalism and all other systems of oppression, he was moved more by the positive socialist vision than by anger and bitterness. All these qualities made him a terrific political organizer and a superb teacher.

Born in Bolivia in 1943 to parents who had fled the Nazis, at the age of ten he moved with his mother and stepfather to New York City and then to upstate New York, where he spent his adolescence. His father, who had been a communist, remained in South America, moving right as Peter moved left. (Peter always said this was quite consistent with his father’s elitist, technological-determinist conception of socialism.)

Peter’s political commitment began at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore when he got heavily involved in the civil rights movement, going to jail more than once. Although Peter’s political convictions were developing in a socialist direction, he was attracted to newer political currents, Peter was a signer of the Port Huron Statement, the founding statement of Students for a Democratic Society often described as the manifesto of the New Left, and the leader of SDS at Johns Hopkins until he left Baltimore.

He was also involved with SDS’ education and research project ERAP, and — before most of the left was ready to oppose President Lyndon Johnson — among the first to advocate a mass march on Washington against the Vietnam war.

During these struggles Peter became acquainted with the Independent Socialist Clubs, a political tendency distinguished by its commitment to a perspective of socialism-from-below and its analysis of the Soviet Union as not socialist, but a new form of class society. He joined the ISC and remained committed to successor organizations — the International Socialists, Workers Power and most recently Solidarity — for the rest of his life.

Organizer and Teacher

Despite his lifetime commitment to this particular section of the “Old Left,” Peter also represented the best tendencies of the New Left, always advocating working in broad social movements with new people  and fighting against sectarianism.

In 1965 Peter came to New York and got a job in the New York State Employment Service, where he started a rank-and-file caucus and put out a newsletter to revive a moribund union local. His efforts, though activating a lot of people, were defeated.

In 1968 the ISC initiated the Peace and Freedom Party and its alliance with the Black Panther Party. As well as being the indefatigable NY state organizer for the PFP, he was the PFP’s state liaison with the Panthers. This work involved close collaboration with the Panthers — Peter even initiated the organizing of a couple of Black Panther Party hapters — but also struggle, which Peter handled with a great deal of grace and political skill.

In the late `60s Peter was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research. He always remained more committed to politics than to school. During the next two decades Peter continued to be active in whatever movements he could, all the while trying to maintain a socialist organization that integrated a broader political vision with a primary commitment to rank-and-file trade union organizing.

As a voice for conciliation and reason during the factional disputes of the period, Peter was well liked and respected even by opponents. One described him as always bringing the often-left-out human side to politics.

Peter was a terrific recruiter to socialist politics, partly because he was simply so personable; as one person remembered, “he made it seem reasonable, not crazy, and he always encouraged me.”

Many people said Peter was the person who taught them socialist politics. His patience in taking the time to explain anything — because he really enjoyed helping people to understand things — made him a great teacher.

Helping to sustain Peter’s optimism through the recent period, when radical political movements have been on the wane, were jobs he held in alternative education, most importantly his work the past ten years at the Fortune Society, an organization devoted to helping ex-offenders. The satisfaction he got from trying to change society he now got from helping to change individuals’ lives.

The same qualities that made Peter a gifted political organizer made him an exemplary teacher and teacher of teachers. A gentle, encouraging manner, his genuine respect for each student as a unique individual with much to offer, inspired all he came in contact with.

While at the Fortune Society Peter helped to found an advocacy organization of adult literacy workers, the United Literacy Workers, which worked to secure benefits and protection for workers and advocated for students. And beyond his regular responsibilities Peter produced two magazines of student writing. Peter’s commitment to students in turn inspired a great loyalty from them.

Improvisation As Vision

No discussion of Peter would be complete without mentioning the importance of music. Peter loved and had a gift for it, particularly blues piano. He also loved Bach’s music, which he saw as similar in a deep way to jazz in its improvisational qualities.

Although Peter had no formal musical training and could not read music, he had a great ear and perfect pitch. As everyone who attended his parties will remember, Peter played great jazz piano. For a while he made a living teaching people to play piano by ear.

Peter believed that the balance within a jazz group, playing together and giving individual musicians the opportunity to improvise, provided a model for a socialist society. In a different and more just society Peter might well have devoted himself to music. He also loved baseball and all kinds of electronic gadgets.

For most of his adult life Peter lived in Greenwich Village. He loved to hang out in coffee houses and he seemed to know everyone. Over the years, he had many relationships with women with whom he almost invariably managed to stay good friends.

Only his deep commitment to Peggy and to having a family enticed him away from the Village and his bohemian lifestyle (including smoking two packs of cigarettes a day!). His family gave him great satisfaction over the last several years and he would often laugh sheepishly and in surprise at his transformation into a family man.

People loved Peter as a teacher, comrade and true friend; in his person he exemplified the best of socialist values.

ATC 53, November-December 1994