Blackwell, Russell, 1904-1969

Russell Blackwell.
Russell Blackwell.

A short biography of American Communist-turned anarchist Russell Blackwell who travelled to Spain during the Civil War.

Submitted by Steven. on November 15, 2006

Russell Blackwell
Born 1904 - USA, died 1969 - USA

“the anarchist revolution must in no instance utilize the antisocial principles of hierarchy, bureaucracy, and authoritarian discipline.” Russell Blackwell

Born on 24th March 1904 in the Northern United States, a Yankee, Russell Blackwell learnt the profession of cartographer. He joined the Communist Party of the United States of America in the 1920s. He was sent to Mexico by the CPUSA to help organise the Communist youth movement there, under the name of Rosalio Negrete.

There he worked with Vittorio Vidali (Contreras) who was later involved in anti-POUM (anti-Stalinist Marxists) and anti-anarchist activity in the Spanish Civil War and still later in the murder of Leon Trotsky. Blackwell was national secretary of the Young Communist League of Mexico. He was deported from Honduras for his activities in 1925.

He started reading the paper of US Trotskyists, Militant, and was converted to Trotskyism. He founded a Trotskyist group within the Mexican Communist Party. His dissidence led to him being denounced and expelled. He took on the Spanish language correspondence of the US Trotskyists. He left them in 1934 when along with Hugo Oehler, he objected to the French turn (entrism within the social-democratic parties).

Oehler and Tom Stamm and one third of the Workers Party set up the Revolutionary Workers League in which Blackwell became involved. For several months he dealt with correspondence with and the translating and publishing of the left of the POUM. Refused a passport to Spain because of his revolutionary record, he stowed away on a French ship bound for France. When it was discovered he spoke only Spanish, he was deported to Spain on arriving in France. With Oehler he went to Spain and established contact with the Cell 72 group (the POUM left) in Barcelona. He was arrested twice by the GPU (Russian secret police) working through the Spanish police and twice released on the intervention of the US authorities.

He established contact with the anarchists and with the Friends of Durruti. He was wounded slightly during the May events - in which the Communists consolidated their power over the Republic - after which he went into hiding. Sam Dolgoff says that he joined the Friends of Durruti during the May days and he seems to have moved over to anarchism at the same time. Ten months later he was apprehended. After protests he was put on a British ship bound for Marseilles. He was taken off the boat by the Stalinist secret police, kept in a dungeon for two months and tortured. After more protests, he was tried for high treason, found not guilty and was sent back to the USA.

Shortly after his return to In New York he was brutally beaten by Communist Party thugs whilst out pushing his child in a pram. It was at this time that he became an excellent cartographer and retired from politics to raise his family.

He set up the Libertarian League in July 1954 in New York along with Sam and Esther Weiner (Dolgoff). This had about ten regular members and tended towards anarcho-syndicalism with a touch of anarcho-communism. It edited Views and Comments. Blackwell was the driving force within it. He got a job with the United Nations but was sacked because of his anarchism.

At least five lives of Spanish anarchist workers were saved by the work of Blackwell and Dolgoff in the Libertarian League. They were also involved in solidarity work with Bulgarian anarchists and established contacts with Bulgarian anarchists in exile in Paris.

They criticised the Castro regime from the beginning, as they had contact with the correspondence bureau of the Cuban anarchist movement in Miami and in Havana before Castro took over. Blackwell and Dolgoff made a tape Cuba: A Third View for WBAI radio but the station refused to run it as too controversial. The League had links with the Noir et Rouge magazine in Paris and Italian anarchists in Milan.

A sum of money that Russell inherited was donated to the League to pay for all the expenses incurred with a removal to another hall. At his own expense he toured a number of midwestern cities to gain support for the paper of the League, Views and Comments.

Blackwell became less and less active in the League as he became more involved in neighbourhood groups and civil rights activities. His experiences within the civil rights movement were not completely happy. He took part in the Harlem riots out of solidarity. He avoided a savage beating by a black gang who wanted to drive all whites off their "turf" only thanks to ther intervention of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who happened to be passing.The Libertarian League collapsed in 1965.

"Russell's tiny three rooms in a lower East Side slum were a free, informal one-man social agency, assisting people in distress, promoting neighbourhood community initiartives, demonstrations against high rents, poor food, poor schooling, discrimination, low welfare payments etc". Max Dolgoff in his biography Fragments.

Blackwell, who had suffered from a chronic heart condition, died suddenly in August 1969 after a massive heart attack.

Nick Heath