Remembering Milt Zaslow

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

Mike Davis

I FIRST MET Milt Zaslow in 1969, when we were pitted against one another in a debate on “Mao’s Marxism” at a left coffeehouse called the Haymarket, across from L.A. City College. I had just been expelled from the Communist Party as part of an “ultra-left” group that identified with both the Cuban Tricontinental movement and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

I was supposed to carry Mao’s banner, but Milt spoke first and his presentation was so compelling that I ended up agreeing with most of his main points. This so infuriated one comrade (later the chairman of a major Maoist sect) that he screamed “Both these bastards are Trots!” and threw a chair in my direction.

I crossed paths with Milt a year later, during the big teamster wildcat that climaxed in mass arrests and strike violence in Cleveland and Los Angeles.

Although I was in a non-striking local, one of my friends was the ringleader of the strike at a particularly militant barn (Western Carloading) where the company had brought in heavily armed Wackenhut guards. His original response was to beg his gangster brother-in-law to send some muscle from Las Vegas. When the mob declined any interest in the class struggle, he asked me if any of my “commie friends” would bolster the picket line instead.

I called Milt and the next morning, at 5:30 am, Gene Warren and other comrades from Friends of the Panthers (later the Socialist Union) were there in place of the Mafia. They stayed on the line for weeks and impressed everyone with their cool courage in the face of continuous harassment by the sheriffs and Wackenhuts.

Milt disdained the inflated revolutionary bravado of the period, but time and again his group were the first to put themselves in harm’s way when activists in Southcentral or the Eastside of Los Angeles were under attack.

When the Panthers realized that the Los Angeles Police Department was plotting a military assault on their headquarters, Gene Warren came up with an ingenious plan to bulletproof the headquarters with hundreds of old telephone books.

Milt and other comrades meanwhile incurred savage beatings when they tried to interpose themselves in front of the LAPD assault. Although the LAPD eventually fired thousands of rounds, Gene’s telephone books prevented a massacre.

Several years later, after my own initiation into the Fourth International in Scotland, and after Milt’s group had been expelled from the Socialist Workers Party for the “Mandelite” sympathies, I joined the Socialist Union back in L.A. [The SU had dissolved so that its members could join the SWP–although Milt Zaslow himself was not allowed in–but they were expelled in 1974 with the opposition Internationalist Tendency–ed.]

Quarrelsome by temperament, I often skirmished with Milt in meetings. There is elation in dueling with a master, and Milt was a brilliant debater and spectacular public speaker. More importantly, he infused our small world with enormous revolutionary passion and intellectual dignity. No one worked more tirelessly for socialist unity and regroupment at a time when sectarian frenzies were destroying an entire generation of the left.

Milt had a profound influence on my life. It is my deep regret and shame that I never acknowledged this to him personally. He lived fully, with generosity, wisdom and courage, never doubting that socialism was the hope of the world.

ATC 71, November-December 1997