Julius Jacobson (1922-2003)

Against the Current, No. 105, July/August 2003

Samuel Farber

JULIUS JACOBSON, CO-EDITOR and founder of the socialist journal New Politics, died in Brooklyn, New York, on March 8, 2003. He was 81 years old.

Julie and his wife Phyllis — who has been in a nursing home since she suffered a stroke three years ago — were children of the now almost extinct Jewish blue-collar working class in New York City.

Julie’s father was a teamster; Phyllis’ father worked for thirty years as a waiter in Ratner’s, a restaurant in the Lower East Side. Maybe that is why the family never ate there.

Julie grew up in the Bronx during the Depression. His accounts of that experience were fascinating. I particularly remember his description of the different standards of living within the Jewish working class.

He used to talk about his friend Irving Horenstein (Irving Howe) in the Bronx, who was relatively better off because his father worked as a skilled worker in the garment district while Julie’s own father was a lesser skilled teamster who was often unemployed. When Irving finished high school he went straight to City College — the free tuition college — while Julie went straight to work (years later, Julie did attend college for a while as a World War II veteran).

Julie, as well as Phyllis, was part of the disappearing self-taught left-wing public intellectuals. Although Julie edited and contributed to several books, notably The Negro and the American Labor Movement (Anchor Books, 1968), he never held a research or teaching position at any college or university; neither did Phyllis.

Julie earned a living as a highly skilled machinist while Phyllis worked as an editorial assistant. It was as a skilled worker in army uniform that Julie saw combat in World War II. He was sent to France where he participated in four campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge and the U.S. liberation of Paris.

Although he did not fight in the front, he escaped death on several occasions while other soldiers were killed a few feet away from him. I learned about this and many other aspects of his rich life during the many conversations we had when my wife Selma and I visited Phyllis in the nursing home.

He used to talk about the Parisian Trotskyists he met while he was stationed in the French capital. He told us of “liberating” substantial amounts of food and supplies from the U.S. Army and hauling it to the comrades who were suffering the effects of wartime shortages after years of underground existence under the Nazi occupation.

Julie was then personally close to a group of Greek Trotskyists residing in the French capital, including Michel Raptis (Pablo).

After the war, Julie continued to work as a machinist. He came to own a small machine shop with another Trotskyist machinist, Herman Benson, who later founded the Association for Union Democracy. Eventually, Herman and Julie ended their business partnership; Julie remained in the shop.

An unusual boss, he brought in the UAW to organize the workers in his shop. He also became the employer of last resort for many movement comrades who were unemployed and financially hard-up. Years later, Julie became a manager when the Bell and Howell Corporation bought his business. He was forced into retirement when Bell and Howell closed the shop in the early eighties “deindustrializing” Julie and his workers.

WP and ISL

Although Julie had been a Communist Pioneer in his childhood (his parents were Jewish Communists), he became attracted to the Trotskyists as a teenager during the Depression. He was a member of the YPSL (Young People’s Socialist League, the youth wing of the Socialist Party), which during the second half of the Thirties supported the Fourth International.

He supported Max Shachtman’s Workers Party when the latter split from Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party in 1940 on a number of questions, particularly the class nature of the Soviet Union: The WP maintained the USSR was a new type of class society, called bureaucratic collectivism, whereas the SWP argued that it was a degenerated workers’ state.

After the war, and through the fifties, Julie played an important role in the Workers Party and its successor organization, the Independent Socialist League, as the managing editor of The New International, the theoretical journal of the WP/ISL (Max Shachtman was the Editor).

He also wrote for that magazine and for the party’s newspaper Labor Action under the pen name of Julius Falk. During the Fifties, Julie also became involved in the publication of Anvil, a journal oriented to a broader political milieu, which included people such as C. Wright Mills.

Julie spoke to us with pride about Anvil’s biggest “coup”: obtaining permission from Simone de Beauvoir to publish one of the chapters of her new book The Second Sex. That issue sold out very quickly.

In 1958, the ISL was dissolved and entered the Socialist Party (Julie Jacobson was among the handful who opposed this course and wrote a trenchant critique of it). By then, Max Shachtman and his followers had begun to move in the direction of supporting the Democratic Party at home and U.S. foreign policy abroad.

Founding New Politics

By the early sixties, it had also become evident that Shachtman’s people had begun to take over the SP, and in 1961 Shachtman declared himself in favor of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. In response to this situation, Julie, Phyllis, Sam Bottone, Hal and Anne Draper and other members of the Third Camp (neither Washington nor Moscow) political tendency such as Stan Weir and George Rawick began to look for political alternatives outside the SP.

It was in this context that New Politics was born in the fall of 1961. That was when I met Phyllis and Julie in New York for the first time. I was on my way to England; while I was in London, I distributed a sizable bundle of the new journal to a number of left-wing bookstores.

As a young man who was beginning to get politically educated, I read every single article that New Politics published in the sixties and seventies. The magazine played a major role in my political education. New Politics acted as an informal theoretical journal for the left-wing Third Campers in the SP and the Young Peoples’ Socialist League, and after 1964, for the Independent Socialist Clubs, the predecessor organization of the International Socialists founded in 1969.

I learned a great deal from the principled non-sectarian politics of New Politics. This was particularly the case with the very important contributions that the journal made in the following areas:

Labor: The remarkable and fearless articles published in New Politics laid the factual and political bases for a labor rank-and-file approach that did not simply involve a tactical or strategic approach to the unions, but was fundamentally a practical application of the democratic “socialism from below” politics to the labor movement.

The articles by the radical labor attorney Burton Hall — the founding practitioner of union democracy law — did not limit themselves to the legalities of union democracy, but presented a portrayal and indictment of a decayed and bankrupt union bureaucracy.

Herbert Hill exposed the racism and bureaucratic corruption of the social democratic garment union (ILGWU), a union that had long been held as a paragon of progressive unionism among liberals and social democrats. Stan Weir denounced the 1960 containerization agreement that the CP-influenced ILWU (West Coast Longshoremen) signed with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).

As Weir pointed out in the pages of NP, this agreement led to the creation of a second-class group of “B” longshoremen who were not union members. Stan himself was a leader of a group of mostly Black “troublemaking” longshoremen who were denied registration even as “B” men and were thus excluded from the industry.

Stan’s group was shunned by a large section of the left who were sympathetic to, or did not want to offend, the ILWU leadership headed by Harry Bridges. Thus, NP provided an indispensable platform for Stan and his fellow workers.

Steve Zeluck took on the Shachtmanite-influenced American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which opposed the militant wing of the Black movement and supported the Vietnam War. Steve also wrote in NP about the racist 1968 New York teachers’ strike that opened up an historic wedge between the Black and Jewish communities.

The Soviet Bloc

The journal edited by Julie and Phyllis also covered extensively the Soviet Bloc and the rest of the Communist world including China, Vietnam and Cuba.

Contrary to the practices of many publications on the Left, NP did not give priority to discussions of the class character of those societies. Rather, it assumed that those countries constituted a new type of class society, and concentrated first on covering important events and changes in that part of the world and second, on confronting widely influential apologies for those regimes.

Examples of articles fitting the first category were Tony Cliff’s article on the 22nd Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, and another piece which was one of New Politics biggest “coups:” the “Open Letter to the Party” by the Polish revolutionaries Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski.

Julie’s devastating critique of Isaac Deutscher belonged to the second category. The coverage of these societies presented an intransigently honest account of that world unaffected by the diplomacy and politically corrupt complicities of an important and influential part of the left.

Confronting Communism

Julie and Phyllis had to function for several decades in a political world where the Communist Party and its allies were hegemonic. This took a toll on Julie and Phyllis.

This political world was not the benign Popular Front paradise portrayed by certain revisionist historians of the Communist Party. Rather, vicious attacks, slander and political marginalization were the price for opposing the apologists for Stalin’s Russia and of expressing solidarity with the oppressed Soviet peoples and, after 1945, with Stalin’s neo-colonial subjects in Eastern Europe.

The suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and Khrushchev’s revelations at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 severely diminished the political influence of the American Communist Party. That did not lead to a complete rejection of Stalinist ideas but, instead, to the emergence of a new hegemonic left ideology that consisted of a mixture of Stalinism, New Leftism, Third Worldism and a substantial influence of social democratic and liberal ideas.

The Jacobsons only partly recognized, and lagged behind in politically assimilating, the changes that had taken place, often lacking a sense of proportion in overestimating the influence of Stalinism.

They also continued to maintain the “hard” political style they had developed in response to the attacks they experienced during most of their political life. That was counterproductive in communicating with the new political generations who began to discover left wing politics in the sixties and afterwards.

On the other hand, Julie did publish in the 1980s a nuanced, politically sensitive analysis of the Communist phenomenon. This was his excellent article “Reflections on Fascism and Communism,” a critique of Susan Sontag’s identification of the two systems in a notorious speech she gave at a rally in support of the Polish Solidarity movement in New York (Socialist Perspectives, edited by Phyllis and Julius Jacobson, Princeton and New York: Karz-Cohl Publishers, 1983, 119-154).

Important Contributions

Other topics that New Politics covered at great length and depth were the Black community and the Civil Rights and subsequent Black Liberation movements.

Herbert Hill, the labor secretary of the NAACP, exposed and denounced racism in the labor movement in his several contributions to New Politics. Julie also applied his polemical skills to sharply criticize Bayard Rustin for turning away from movement and street demonstrations into Democratic Party politics that Jacobson called “politicking.”

The journal also covered extensively the various movements of the sixties. Hal Draper’s powerful analysis of the New Left and its critics, “In Defense of the New Radicals,” was widely circulated and discussed in the Berkeley of the mid-sixties where he had played a major role as an ideological mentor of the Free Speech Movement.

Draper’s “Origins of the Middle East Crisis,” published in 1967 was almost exceptional in an American Left that had tended to ignore if not uncritically favor the Israeli government and Zionism. Last but not least, New Politics published one of the more widely disseminated versions of Draper’s classic “The Two Souls of Socialism.”

All of these articles constituted a central part of my political education. As effective as the early New Politics was in helping to educate my generation, however, it was somewhat limited by the magazine’s notion that dialoguing and arguing with social democrats was an important political goal of the magazine.

While this may have been justified during the early and mid-fifties when there were few people that would talk to members of our tendency, or somewhat later when the Third Campers were still inside the Socialist Party, that no longer made sense by the sixties when vast new political vistas and possibilities had opened up, and traditional social democracy was not a significant force inside the new movements.

The same can be said for such political formulations as the demand for a “democratic foreign policy.” This made for a good transitional demand in the context of the hegemonic American ideology of the Fifties where the overwhelming majority of the American people believed in the democratic pretense of America’s rulers. But this ideological monolith began to seriously crack in the sixties and seventies.

Given this huge change, it now became necessary to also indicate why such a desirable democratic foreign policy was incompatible with the goals and needs of America’s rulers. Otherwise, one ran the risk of being viewed as naive by the hundreds of thousands of already radicalized Americans, a group that obviously did not exist in the fifties.

While I have so far concentrated on the early New Politics (1961-1976) because of the great formative influence it had on my own politics, I do continue to have a high appreciation for the second New Politics series (1986 to the present).

This second New Politics is a first-rate socialist magazine. It continues to have a sharp political focus and is very topical in its continuing strong coverage of its “traditional” strengths: the labor movement, Eastern Europe, the Democratic Party, independent political action, and the Black community and Black movements.

In addition, it has greatly strengthened its coverage of women’s issues and has had very strong pieces by Steve Steinberg on the liberal retreat on race. Last but not least, NP has provided ample room for the analyses of the capitalist disaster of post-soviet societies; post-1967 Israel and the Palestinians; and Tom Harrison’s principled defense of Bosnian self-determination while rejecting Allied intervention in the former Yugoslavia.

I am also grateful to NP for allowing me to publish my reviews and articles on Cuba without undue obstacles or harassment.

While the editorial work of the Jacobsons constituted a big part of my political education in the sixties and seventies, Julie also showed me, in the last few years, what it means to be a full human being.

Julie became totally dedicated to Phyllis ever since she suffered a severe stroke in the summer of 2000. He did this without complaining or even questioning for a second that this was what he had to do.

His full-time care of Phyllis did not stop Julie from continuing his work as an editor of New Politics. He was correcting the proofs of his latest article up to a couple of days before his death.

In the death of Julie Jacobson, I have lost a former Brooklyn neighbor, friend, comrade, and a man who throughout his life, truly stood “against the current” with amazing integrity.

ATC 105, July-August 2003