Red & Black Notes was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Martin Glaberman on December 17, 2001. Marty was active in the workers' movement for almost seventy years, as a writer, agitator, activist and teacher. His death is a tremendous loss to those who knew him and the working class.
Marty Glaberman joined the Socialist Party youth group in 1932 when he was 13 years old. He came from a social democratic family and joined the SP because it was the only organization in the neigbourhood. Asked why he joined at 13, he replied they wouldn't take him any younger.
While in the Socialist Party, Marty met Trotskyists, who in 1933 had dissolved their public organization and entered the SP. When the Trotskyists left the party in 1937 to form their own organization, the Socialist Workers Party, Marty went with them.
The following year Marty happened to see CLR James, a Carribean Trotskyist who had been living in Britain, speak in New York. A brilliant speaker and writer James had come to the US on a speaking tour and was persuaded to stay. Marty described seeing James as a "remarkable experience . . . he left a first impression on me that I never forgot."
When a faction fight broke out in the SWP in 1939 over the question of the nature of the Soviet Union, Marty, along with James supported the minority position. In 1940, the party split and forty percent of the adult party and a majority of the youth split away to form the Workers Party James, and Marty were among those who left to form the Workers Party under the leadership of Max Shachtman.
In 1941 James and Raya Dunayevskaya, a former secretary of Trotsky and also differed with Shachtman, formed a minority tendency in the WP, which became known as the Johnston-Forest tendency after the pseudonyms of its leaders James (Johnson) and Dunayevskaya (Forest). Actually this is unfair, since Grace Boggs was also a leader of the group.
The Johnson-Forest tendency left the WP to return to the SWP in 1946, but prior to formally joining they published a remarkable body of literature: The first English translations of some of Marx's early writings, a pamphlet on the American worker, works on state-capitalism and a remarkable study of Hegel. During this time they began the process that would reject the hallmark of Leninism, the vanguard party.
The Johnson-Forest tendency left the SWP in 1952 and became an independent organization with their own newspaper Correspondence. One of the remarkable things about Correspondencewas the method called by Dunayevskaya "the full fountain pen." The members of the group actively sought to hear from workers and wrote down their words.
Although he was a writer and an editor of Correspondence, Marty was also a worker. He spent 20 years in auto and the fruits of this can be seen in such pamphlets as Punching Out and Be His Wages High or Low. In the 1990's Bewick Editions published a collection of Marty's poems about life on the shop floor under the title The Factory Songs of Mr. Toad.
Organizing a radical group at the height of the McCarthy period was not an easy task: Just prior to the launching of the paper James had been deported. In 1955, the group was to split, with Dunayevskaya taking a majority to form News & Letters. A second split in the early 1960's further reduced the group.
While the themes of workers self- organization had an influence in the sixties when libertarian socialism seemed more in accord with the times than the stodgy old left, it did little to help the fortunes of the group, now renamed Facing Reality. Marty taught a class on Marx's Capital to future members of DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, but he admitted this didn't translate into recruits, funds or even articles for their newsletter. At Marty's insistence Facing Reality dissolved in 1970. After Facing Reality was wound down, but years before CLR James was "discovered" by the academy, Marty established Bewick Editions to keep James' work in print. Marty also taught at Wayne State University, wrote several books including Wartime Strikes and Working for Wages, and contributed a steady stream of letters and reviews to a number of radical journals across North America, such as New Politics, and Radical America.
In his 1980 book Wartime strikes Marty discussed the struggle against the no-strike pact in the United Auto Workers in WWII. Of particular interest was how this related to academic and leftist notions of "class consciousness."
In the UAW, along with other unions there was pressure to sign a no-strike pact. At the 1944 convention resolutions in support of and in opposition to the no-strike pact were defeated. A compromise resolution however which called for a postal ballot was accepted: A ballot would be mailed to every UAW member. Less that half of the ballots were returned, but of those who bothered to vote, a majority re-affirmed the no- strike position. At the same time as this vote was taking place an absolute majority of UAW members engaged in wildcat strikes. When asked about consciousness Marty answered:
"That was the whole point to Wartime Strikes. The idea that in the UAW in World War II a majority voted to sustain the no- strike pledge, and while that vote was taking place an absolute majority of auto- workers went on strike. So what the hell do they believe: A no-strike pledge or they had the right to go on strike? It's contradictory. They believed you should have a no-strike pledge, but when the foreman looked at them that way, they walked off the job. That was what Marx was about. Marx says it doesn't matter what that worker thinks, or even the working class as a whole thinks, it's a matter of what they will be forced to do. They are forced to resist the nature of work.
And that's becoming worse. Every report about the new automated work, all I hear from anybody out of the auto-shop is the greater speed-up. If somebody tells me workers are saying "great! I love to be here" OK, I'll give up on the revolution, but we're not even close to anything like that."
(Revolutionary Optimist, p. 21)
Throughout this long career there was a constant focus on the working class as agent of its own liberation. In practice, this meant a rejection of the Leninist vanguard party, but curiously, considering Lenin's role in the destruction of workers' power in Russia, not of Lenin himself.. For Marty, and also for CLR James, Lenin remained a figure of great importance.
My earliest contact with Marty was when I was living in Calgary. I wrote to him asking for permission to republish, in an edited form, his introduction to CLR James' brief account of democracy in ancient Greece, "Any Cook Can Govern." Permission was granted and the piece appeared, as "A Different Kind of Democracy".
When I moved back to Toronto in 1998, I contacted Marty and visited him in December of the same year. We talked in his apartment, then had lunch at the Detroit Art Institute.
Over the next year or so I kept in touch with Marty and in January 2001, along with two friends I interviewed him about his life and thoughts for the future. The interview was later transcribed and published as the pamphlet Revolutionary Optimist. I met Marty fewer than a dozen times, although I also had communication with him through email, phone and letter. I last saw him in the Fall of 2000 when he came to Toronto to start a Capital class with some comrades here. People were impressed, not only with Marty's knowledge and experience, but also that at the age of 82 he would be willing to travel the four hours by car to talk politics with people here.
My last communication with Marty was a few weeks before his death. He wrote me a short note expressing his satisfaction with the pamphlet and asking for more copies. He will be missed.
First published in Red and Black Notes in Winter 2002, this article has been archived on libcom.org from the Red and Black Notes website.