A short autobiography of Sidney Solomon long-time anarchist and painter who lived in New York. Member of Vanguard Group, the New Trends Group and the Libertarian Book Club
Sidney Solomon, a long-time anarchist and painter who lived in New York, died Monday 1st March 2004 at the age of 92. Sidney participated in the international anarchist movement going back to the 1930s. We present a sample of Sidney Solomon's own words in his oral history that he provided. SIDNEY SOLOMON Forest Hills, New York, June 2, 1973 A book designer by profession and a talented painter, Sidney Solomon was a member of the Vanguard Group in the 1930s, the New Trends Group in the 1940s, and the .Libertarian Book Club from the 1940s through the 1980s (see interview with Clara Solomon).
I was born in the town of Pogost on the Berezina River in Minsk province on 8, 1911. Pogost had a beautiful wooden synagogue, one of the most My father was a barber and had a sort of underground railroad for Jewish boys escaping from service in the tsar's army. Because of this, he himself fled to the United States in 1911, a couple of steps ahead of the police. We followed two years later: my mother, two older brothers, and myself, then one and a half years old. A sister was born afterwards in America.)
We settled in the Bronx, near Charlotte Street, and I attended Public High School 61, where I was chosen to take part in an experimental group, headed by a teacher named Louis Klein, a socialist, with the encouragement of the principal, Edward McGuire ("Baldy" McGuire, he was called), himself a closet socialist. The group had a Painting Club--we went To Bronx Park and painted scenery--and a Science Club--the kids acted as protons, neutrons, and electrons, jumping about the room. On graduation, I and Tommy Dolgoff, also a member of the special group, were selected to go to Townsend Harris High School for gifted students.
I was kind of a black sheep in the family, which was mostly Communist. At a very early age I rebelled against their authoritarian ideas. We lived in a radical Bronx neighborhood, with intense Communist and socialist activity. As a high school senior I joined Circle One of the YPSL [Young People's Socialist League] in the Bronx, a very influential group. I had gone to a YCL [Young Communist League] meeting but was horrified at how it was stage-managed and controlled. There was no free discussion--like 1984. Downright revolting! And the Trotskyists in the YCL were no different. They steam-rolled everything through. I was disgusted, turned off, so I joined YPSL.
There the older people did teach us, and there were real discussions, and I really learned something. But they too relied on authority. Marx was still there. I read Marx and was repelled by his authoritarianism. I also disliked their gradualist approach. I wanted action. So I turned toward anarchism. I talked to Sam Dolgoff [q.v.] and Lou Slater [q.v.], who really brought me over to anarchism. I attended the founding meeting of the Vanguard Group at Clara's house. I felt there was a serious flaw in economic determinism. I believed that ideas played a big part in social change, as big a part as economics or anything else.
Vanguard became my dream, my hope. I felt it would grow to something important. Our paper had a good response. The older comrades saw us as an errant child, but they were proud of us. Clara did five times as much work as anybody else: correspondence, selling papers, organizing meetings, debates and lectures. We debated with socialists, Trotskyists, and Communists, and attracted disaffected socialists and Communists to our group.
Our relations with the socialists were always friendly, in contrast to those with the Communists. Abe Bluestein [q.v.], Roman Weinrebe, and I carried on propaganda at City College, in the alcoves and even in the classrooms. We wanted to organize the workers and rally them to our movement. I went to the steel mills at Youngstown, I went to Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities, speaking to workers and organizing anarchist groups. I was hoping to attract really big groups among the workers. Many of them were very sympathetic to the anarchists and the IWW, especially the steel workers. You can_t imagine the response I had. Louis Genin [q.v.] also went on speaking going tours, before going out to Sunrise.
At its height, Vanguard had a circulation of about three thousand. That was in 1936, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. When Spanish Revolution was established, Mark Schmidt [q.v.], I, Roman, and Jack White were active in it. We had close contact with foreign anarchist groups in the U.S._the Fraye Arbeter Shtime, Il Martello, Cultura Proletaria, even L'Adunata. They were mostly workers who wanted theoreticians.
I and Roman were very close to Carlo Tresca. He was a man of action who got things done, not a purist or puritan anarchist like the L'Adunata crowd, but practical. I liked that. The Fraye Arbeter Shtime people were also for the most part practical and down-to-earth. We had an English-language page in Il Martello, which I edited. We wanted to get them, , the other anarchists, to be less isolated within their own language groups. Tresca was a great inspiration to us. He told me quite a few times before his murder that he was gathering information on on large-scale collaboration between the Communists and the fascists. I think it was the Communists who shot him.
We did a lot of work in connection with anti-fascist activity---the Terzani case for instance--especially Tresca and Roman Weinrebe. When Terzani was freed we all ate a huge Italian meal that lasted lasted eight hours in celebration. Tresca was in the middle of everything, a man with guts. Contrast the anarchists of L'Adunata, who lived in a world of their own. There was an element of paranoia in their hostility toward Tresca.
The Vanguard Group was largely composed of children of Russian Jewish immigrants. But it was quite a varied group. We had a Chinese (Eddie Wong), a Negro (Glenn Carrington), a few Italians (including Bruno Americano, who went to Spain with guns that we supplied and was imprisoned there by the Communists), and a few Irishmen, including Gilbert Connolly, John Pinkman (a former member of the Irish Republican Army), and Albert Mullady from Brooklyn.
We were among the first to criticize Hitler, as anarchists were always alert to authoritarianism, demagogy, and bigotry. The anarchists had a great feeling for literature and were wide-ranging, less narrow and doctrinaire than other radical groups. In Vanguard we made no hard and fast distinction between anarchist-communism and anarcho-syndicalism, but we were not anarchist-individualists. Dwight Macdonald [q.v.], Edward Dahlberg, and Arturo Giovannitti spoke for us, as well as Mark Schmidt and Harry Kelly. We had no contact with Abba Gordin and his Clarion. But we were in touch with Maximiliano Olay, who had an office on Fifth Avenue and put out an information bulletin on Spain for the CNT. We also had some contact with Robert Bek-Gran, who was more of a council communist than an anarchist.
Three issues arose almost simultaneously that caused the group to split. First, our association with II Martello was opposed by a few who preferred L'Adunata. Then there was a personal issue that was not really crucial but became a rallying point: Lou Slater felt he owned his girlfriends. When Clara drifted toward me and Elsie Milstein toward Schmidt, Lou was greatly upset and accused us of stealing them. The whole thing was later taken to a Fraye Arbeter Shtime committee when Lou demanded justice. Lou was deeply hurt and resentful and made personal relations an issue in the group, and that was very disruptive. But he was especially grieved that his own mentor should steal his girlfriend. Abe Bluestein refused to stand for all this bullshit and eventually left the group and established Challenge.
The third and underlying issue was Schmidt himself. He was conspiratorial, devious, mysterious, while we were a fresh, open, marvelous group of youngsters. We were vigorous and wanted to do things. I think he was a paranoid schizophrenic, however well read and brilliant. He never actually did anything. More than that, he prevented us from doing anything. He felt we were theoretically unprepared for action, such as labor-organizing or forming cooperatives. He stopped us from organizing for the ILGWU. We might have had a great impact but for his negativism.
In the ILGWU the anarchists and socialists were always united against the Communists. They needed young organizers whom they could trust, and they called on Vanguard and YPSEL for help. We were called to a meeting with the top brass of the union. But Schmidt got us to decline. The YPSL accepted_Gus Tyler and the others-and did useful work; hence their big reputation today. It was this failure to act that led to the collapse of our group and of the anarchist movement in New York. We had so many good young people that we could reach, and now we lost them. Schmidt claimed that we weren't ready theoretically; actually, he was personally a coward, fearful of taking concrete action, a man who talked revolution but refused to mount the barricades.
Schmidt was a contradiction: he spouted anarchist ideas, while his own behavior, what he personally did, was deeply authoritarian. I too felt that leaders and activists were necessary. Even the word _government_ didn_t frighten me. When the Spanish Revolution came, I was not at all troubled that anarchists accepted ministries in the government. Yet I knew what the Communists were_from my family, my reading, my personal experience. In 1936, during a debate with a black Communist named Robert Moore on _The Infallibility of the Comintern,_ I was pulled off the platform by Communist henchmen. I saw Communist strong-men break up Socialist Party meetings. Clara and I were ousted from a Communist-controlled summer camp in upstate New York during the Spanish Civil War.
In this country the trend toward anarchism and socialism was not very strong. Yet there could have been an anarchist movement here, even after the defeat of the Spanish Revolution. We made the mistake of following Schmidt and keeping ourselves a small, isolated group of intellectuals. I feel that we really attracted the better element among the workers, with a sense of ethics and devotion. We did not, as the Communists did, attract the conspiratorial element. But we isolated ourselves, and I feel very bitter about it.
During the early 1940s, when the Second World War came, Clara contracted rheumatic fever, we had a new baby, and we were drawn away from the movement. Many of our group were older and had responsibilities to face. Some went back to school and became professionals. A bunch_Audrey Goodfriend [q.v.], Dave Koven [q.v.], Melvin Greig_went out to settle in California. At the end of the war, New Trends was for me a new attempt to try again. It was a more sophisticated journal than Vanguard. But Schapiro was a very sick man, and the paper died with him.
Anarchism as an ideal is still very meaningful, in some ways more meaningful than ever. Many anarchist ideas have been incorporated into the activities of other groups_rent strikes, free schools, women_s liberation. All you can hope for is the right direction, rather than absolute solutions, for libertarian cultural and educational ideals, whatever label you give them. There are many ways of getting things done that are still relevant and very much alive. This is true also in the field of ecology--that man is part of nature, rather than above nature or exploiting nature. In other parts of the world too, including the Iron Curtain countries, there are signs of increasing liberation. We must advance along nonauthoritarian lines, and in that sense we both, Clara and I, remain anarchists. There are grass-roots sentiments everywhere that indicate that a libertarian movement can catch fire. People are getting tired of rigid bureaucracies and social formulas. In anarchism there is an underlying idea that relates to virtually every aspect of life. We have no regrets about those early years. We threw ourselves heart and soul into the cause. It was writing and working, it was personal involvement, it was hitchhiking and travel, it was organizing and it demonstrating--it was all the energies of our youth.
Taken from Struggle.ws