Red and Black Notes review of Punching Out by Martin Glaberman.
Review by Charles H Kerr, 2002
Martin Glaberman, Marty to those who knew him, liked to describe himself as an "unreconstructed Johnsonite." By that, he meant that he was still a supporter of the ideas and perspectives developed by CLR James when he wrote under the pen name of JR Johnson. That meant that Marty espoused many unpopular ideas:
· He believed that the workers' movement was more just than its "organized" sector.
· He believed that what posed as socialism in Eastern Europe was in fact its opposite.
· He believed that class-consciousness was not measured by sales of leftist newspapers and votes in elections.
· But most of all, he believed that workers were capable of creating a better society, and it would be through the creative efforts of working people that this better world would be born.
Much of Marty's writing was published in small circulation newspapers and pamphlets. Such is reality for tiny socialist groups. The danger was that the bulk of his work would ultimately be consigned to the "gnawing criticism of mice." For preventing this from happening, Staughton Lynd, the editor of the posthumously released selection of Marty's writings Punching Out deserves a special note of thanks.
Marty, who died in December 2001, was active in the workers' movement for almost his entire life. He joined the youth group of the Socialist Party when he was 14 years old, and passed through a series of leftist and labour organizations, writing, teaching and talking until the end. Punching Out is a fitting tribute to those who knew the man and a great introduction for those who, unfortunately, will only know him through his writings.
The book is organized into four sections, each dealing with aspects of Marty's interests. The first, the trade union movement, deals with the "organized" sector of the working class. Marty was opposed to the idea that the union was a "cop" for the boss, since he believed that view indicated that unions were a "trick of the boss." However, he realized that the union did serve to police the working class in order to live up to the contract. While he continued to see the unions as working class organizations, he knew that the workers would have to go beyond them.
In the second section of the book dealing with the working class, Marty examines class-consciousness and how that unfolds in the real world. Marty loved to tell about the struggle against the no-strike clause in World War II, where workers actually voted for a no-strike clause and then struck against it. Marty was quick to argue that it is what workers do which is a truer measure of class-consciousness.
In the third section of the book, the essays examine the possibility and potential of revolutionary movements. Here Marty looks at the meaning of the Polish solidarity movement, which he believed outdid the Hungarian workers' struggle of 1956 and also the relevance of Lenin for today. I part company with Marty's analysis here. The reverence for Lenin is a mystery, as much of what the Johnsonites believed, with their affinity for the spontaneous capacities of the working class were directly the opposite of Lenin's conceptions
The final section of the book reprints some of Marty's poems. Marty wrote poetry as a way to express his feelings that his political writings could not. And in his poetry, in such poems as "Wildcat", he again explores revolutionary and creative potential of the working class.
The book also features several lovely cartoons of "the Egghead" which appeared in the Correspondence in the early 1950s, reminiscent of the Mr. Block cartoons from the IWW's Industrial Worker.
One finds in Marty an extremely readable and approachable style. Free from the jargon that plagues leftist writing, and which unfortunately this publication is not exempt, Punching Out explains in simple clear terms, that workers view reality in a much clearer way than their would-be leaders give them credit for.
My only real complaint about this book was the difficulty I had in obtaining it. Even though the publisher Charles H Kerr is only an eight-hour drive from Toronto, I ran into roadblocks in ordering it. It proved impossible to order through the mainstream book distributors on the Internet, and the web site listed in the book is inoperative (although it may now be ordered from the IWW site) There doesn't even seem to be a Canadian distributor for Kerr's books.
Nevertheless, radicals in the US have no excuse. In his introduction, Staughton Lynd calls Marty "the most important writer on labor matters in the United States during the second half of the Twentieth century." Whatever the political blindspots in Marty's book, it deserves to be widely read and discussed by the milieu.
First Published in Red and Black Notes #19, Spring 2004, this article has been archived on libcom.org from the Red and Black Notes website.