Edmond Kovacs, 1924-2010

Against the Current, No. 148, September/October 2010

Leslie Evans

I FIRST MET Edmond Kovacs in the fall of 1961. I was then 19 and he 37. He was teaching a class for the Los Angeles chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party. He was the SWP’s Southern California Chairman, introduced under his party name, Theodore Edwards. Most of us in those days had nommes de guerre, fake names that we rather optimistically hoped the FBI wouldn’t figure out. It was only years later that I got in the habit of calling him Edmond.

His subject, of all things, was Hegelian dialectics, a bit abstruse for most of our little group. Edmond explained changes of quantity into quality, the growth of new things within the shell of the old, concluding that Hegel’s key insight was the idea of becoming, to keep your eyes on what was emergent rather than what already existed. It was clear that he had a wide education in European history and the history of ideas.

On November 22, 1963, Edmond was scheduled to speak for our YSA group at UCLA. I met him in the student union, moments after John Kennedy was assassinated. Together we listened to radio broadcasts piped over the public address system, saying that a pro-Castro Marxist had killed the president. This gave us more of a turn than just the assassination. Edmond and I were both Marxists and we were both local officials of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

I got to know Edmond better the next summer, when he served as SWP branch organizer while I was assistant organizer.

Resistance Fighter

Edmond Kovacs was born in Vienna into a socialist family. His mother was Czech; his father, Max, a nonreligious Polish Jew. Max was a member of the Social Democratic Party and of its armed militia, the Schutzbund. The city of Vienna had a socialist government but the national Austrian state was rightist.

In February 1934, threatened with seizure of their weapons, the Schutzbund staged an armed uprising. Edmond, who was not quite 10 years old, carried messages during the fighting. He remembered all his life the corpses lying in the streets, the bullets flying, and the artillery shells striking the Karl Marx Hof, a large workers’ housing complex.

Edmond, who was an athlete in his youth, was in training for the Austrian swim team for the 1940 Olympics, but the team was disbanded when the Nazis invaded and annexed Austria in the 1938 Anschluss. The Olympics itself was canceled because of the outbreak of World War II and not resumed until 1948.

With the Nazis in power his father lost his job and went underground for a while. Max got a visa to the United States but his American relatives refused to sponsor his wife and son. They stayed behind. Mother and son finally got American visas only on August 8, 1939, just three and a half weeks before the invasion of Poland started World War II and they would have been trapped. He and his mother went by train through Switzerland to Paris and got on the last ship to leave France for the United States before the war began.

In America the family lived first in Cleveland, then in Buffalo, New York, where Edmond went to high school. There he first encountered the Trotskyist movement through a classmate, Cynthia Copeland. She was the sister of Vince Copeland, then in the SWP but later a leader of the Workers World Party. Cynthia later married Bert Cochran, an SWP trade union activist until a split in the party in 1953.

After high school Edmond spent two years at a Catholic college, then, in 1944, was given a choice of joining the army or being interned as an enemy alien. He took basic training, then volunteered for the 10th Mountain Infantry Division, an elite ski troop unit. He had done a lot of skiing and mountaineering as a teenager in Austria, so he qualified. Interviewed half a century later, in 1998, by a historian for the 10th Mountain Division, he was asked if he had wanted to join the army. Yes, he replied, “I supported the war against Hitler. I thought that Nazi Germany was a menace to the world with its racism.”

Wartime Experience

While he was in training, his parents in Buffalo were contacted by Eric Barash, a classical pianist and son of the owner of the hotel they had worked at in Vienna. Barash had also come to the United States. He had changed his name to Barrett and married Altina Schinasi, a Jewish designer, artist and Turkish tobacco heiress, whom everybody called Tina. They were moving to Los Angeles and wanted Edmond’s parents to live with them as their household staff and have Max manage Tina’s business interests.

Edmond visited them in L.A. just before shipping out. Tina for some reason had bought an open-topped Cadillac limousine that had been built for the pope, with a throne-like seat in the back. His father chauffeured Edmond, riding on the throne, around Los Angeles the week before he left for the front.

(In an odd coincidence, I came to know Tina very well a decade later. Barash died young of tuberculosis and she married a family friend of mine, Charles Carey, so I spent a lot of time at their house while growing up and lived there for months at a time in the early 1960s. I had known Edmond for 20 years before we discovered this mutual connection.)

The 10th Mountain Division was shipped to Italy in the last months of the war. Edmond took part in the historic battle of Riva Ridge in February 1945 that broke German Field Marshal Kesselring’s Gothic Line in the country’s north. The Germans were entrenched at the top of the Apennine mountain chain that crosses Italy from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic Sea not far from the French border.

The 10th Mountaineers staged a night assault, climbing a thousand feet up a sheer, ice-shrouded cliff on ropes tied to steel pitons they drove into the rock face as they went, using padded hammers to maintain silence. The Germans were surprised, but they did have machine guns. Half of Edmond’s unit were killed in the assault.

Edmond, who spoke Italian as well as English and German, was then assigned as a liaison to the Italian partisans, engaged in mopping up isolated German units. He witnessed the execution of Mussolini and his mistress by the partisans.

Once in the 1960s some time after the Los Angeles SWP headquarters had been firebombed by anti-Castro Cubans, a suspicious clay-like substance was found pressed against the base of the building. Edmond was called and pronounced it plastique explosive. Asked how he could be sure he replied, “I planted enough of that stuff in Italy during the war.”

After Riva Ridge he worked interrogating German officers suspected of committing war crimes, then was transferred to Vienna because of his fluency in German.

There is a story Edmond liked to tell about an incident right after they established a foothold at the top of Riva Ridge. The Germans were still holding a town a few miles north of them, while a bit closer there was a small hut. Edmond saw a wisp of smoke coming out of the hut’s chimney and, taking no chances, fired a mortar shell at the structure. Amazingly, the shell went right down the chimney and the hut went up in flames.

Some months later in Vienna he took part in a big family reunion. One of his cousins, Heini, had served in the German army and walked in with a bad limp. Edmond asked him how he was wounded. It turned out his unit had been assigned to forward duty on the top of Riva Ridge. “We were stationed in a little hut,” Heini said, “when some son of a bitch dropped a mortar shell down the chimney!”

Party Activist

On the GI Bill Edmond took a degree in chemistry at USC and went to work in the oil refineries. It was while he was at USC in 1948 that he met and fell in love with Shirley Slipokoff Morris. They moved in together that year and married in 1950. They remained together until Shirley’s death in 2009.

Edmond joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1947. His chemist job lasted only a few years, until the McCarthy witch-hunt. One day he was called into the front office where two FBI agents asked if he knew Myra Tanner Weiss, the SWP’s vice presidential candidate in the 1952 elections and a leader of the Los Angeles party branch. “Myron Tanner who?” he bluffed, but they forcibly escorted him off the property.

From that point forward he was blacklisted in industry. His parents had moved to Watts, where Max worked as a watchmaker and owned a little jewelry shop. Edmond learned the trade from his father and they worked together until Max died in 1959, after which Edmond ran the business alone.

During the 1950s and 1960s he wrote regularly for the SWP’s theoretical magazine the International Socialist Review: on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, on Nixon’s ill-fated trip to Latin America in 1958, on the United Nations, and on the early stages of the Vietnam War. The party’s Bulletin of Marxist Studies published a nine-lecture course he gave under the title “The Soviet Union: What It Is and Where It Is Going.” [The ISR of that period is not connected to the magazine of that name published currently by the International Socialist Organization. The name is inspired by the revolutionary magazine of the pre-World War I Socialist Party — ed.]

In August 1961 I attended a big meeting at the First Unitarian Church where Edmond debated Earl Browder, former head of the Communist Party, on the topic “America’s Road to Socialism: Revolution or Reform?”

Eight years later he had another notable debate, with Blase Bonpane, the former Maryknoll priest, advocate of Liberation Theology, and tireless human rights activist in Central America. The text was published as a pamphlet under the title “Marxism and Christianity: Are They Compatible?” It is still available on the Internet.

From the early 1960s into the 1970s he had a weekly commentary show on Pacifica’s KPFK radio station, under the name Theodore Edwards.

By the end of the 1960s, as people of my generation took over the New York leadership, Edmond was largely sidelined. In part this was due to the ambitions of the young people around Jack Barnes, the rising leader, who tended to discount what we called the middle generation, those in their forties, younger than the central leaders of the party’s national office in New York, Farrell Dobbs and Tom Kerry, but a decade or so older than we were.

Factional Battles

Edmond faced a double obstacle. He was well past 40 and also lifelong friends with Myra Tanner Weiss and her husband Murray. Edmond would later write Myra’s obituary for Solidarity’s journal Against the Current when she died in 1997. There was a long-simmering semi-secret fight in the party between the Dobbs-Kerry leadership and the party’s founder, James P. Cannon, who lived out in Los Angeles. Cannon regarded New York as abstentionist from work with other forces, ingrown, intolerant of differences, and locked into self-generated activities like forums and subscription drives.

Murray and Myra Weiss supported Cannon. The so-called “Weissites” in consequence became a target. Edmond, without question, was a Weissite. He had some protection while Cannon, Murray, and Myra were active in the leadership, but Murray had a debilitating stroke in 1961 and Myra dropped out of activity a few years later. Most of the former Weiss group were then to one degree or another isolated, restricted to low-level assignments, or encouraged to quit the party.

Edmond got as high as an alternate member of the party’s National Committee but never made the full list and was eventually dropped altogether. He finally became stereotyped as nothing more than a local branch educator.

In his private life Edmond made his living as his father had, as a watchmaker with a small jewelry store. Initially it had been in Watts, where his parents lived. But jewelry stores were a frequent target for armed robbers and Edmond, with his military training, vowed he would never just give in. He kept a gun under the counter and a couple of times shot it out, successfully, with the thieves.

After the Watts riots of 1964 he moved his store to mostly white Glendale to reduce the risk of such confrontations taking on a racial overtone. On July 21, 1981, three men entered his store near closing time. One pulled a sawed-off shotgun from under his coat; the other two had pistols.

Edmond pulled out his own gun. Later he told the press, “He was right-handed, and I kept moving to his left — keeping his body between me and the shotgun…he never could get off a shot. I got off five.” He killed the man with the shotgun and wounded one of the others. He held the third until the police came.

What Edmond didn’t know was that Jack Barnes, the party’s national secretary, had decided to break from the world Trotskyist movement and make a bid to Fidel Castro for the Cubans’ American franchise. Knowing many of the older party members would never go along with this, Barnes made up a secret hit list of about 150 party members who would have to be expelled.

Edmond’s name came first. He was brought up on charges of contributing to law-and-order vigilantism and expelled from the party in 1982. His was the first of many bizarre trials, where 20- and 30-year party veterans were pilloried on frame-up charges and thrown out.

The whole episode is summed up nicely if unexpectedly by an ad I noticed the other day from a San Francisco bookstore. They were selling an old 1982 SWP internal bulletin giving the party leadership’s version of the first wave of trials. The bookstore describes their item as a “Case study of how an organization performs a frontal-lobotomy on itself,” They add, “This document contains summaries of a series of purge trials. Cases range from a straight frame-up in the case of Asher Harer in San Francisco, to an assortment of local purge trial summaries, the expulsion (or resignation according to Barnes) of Peter Camejo, and even the Dirty Harry style case of Edmund Kovacs (a.k.a. Theodore Edwards, one of the more interesting Party intellectuals) in Los Angeles.”

Edmond went on to take part in the founding of Socialist Action, and then of Solidarity, of which he remained a member until his death. In his later years he regularly sent out emails to his friends with articles from the press about American and world politics. He and Shirley went to Italy numerous times to attend reunions of the 10th Mountain Division. He was an avid bicyclist, going on frequent 100-mile Saturday group rides, until late in his 60s when asthma made him stop.

Declining Health

Edmond outlived many of his friends and was in only occasional touch with the others. In recent years I saw him more often at his home than anyone else except his immediate neighbors. We had drifted apart politically but almost 50 years of friendship overrode that. Edmond remained intensely interested in politics to the end.

He could be opinionated and irascible. Those tendencies grew more pronounced in his last year. He became more and more distrustful of doctors, mostly refusing to see them; as Shirley’s health declined a number of his old comrades, particularly women, became very angry at him over his bullying her to not go to the doctor. When Shirley had a serious fall in the late summer I contacted the Kaiser HMO, which assigned a social worker and sent Shirley a visiting nurse. Shirley died in October 2009 after a second fall that broke her hip.

By that time Edmond’s health was poor. He was gasping for breath, and showing signs that I took to be the beginnings of dementia. In the winter his breathing grew alarmingly worse, but he refused to see a doctor.

Finally, on Tuesday, January 12, he felt bad enough to drive himself to the Kaiser hospital. An x-ray revealed that he had undiagnosed advanced throat cancer blocking his airway, which he had mistaken for asthma. The next morning he lapsed into a coma. On Friday, January 15, his doctor told me that it was inoperable and hopeless. As his executor I told them to shut down the life support. He was three months short of his 86th birthday.

I was not blind to his faults, but there was, nevertheless, an enduring affection. He was unique and in his way irreplaceable.

ATC 148, September-October 2010