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Thursday, July 15, 2010


The failure of Moneybags Must Be So Lucky to attract either reviews or readers had at least for a while killed in me any desire to go on publishing books, but it did not quell my desire to write. For years, I had been carrying around the horde of Wolff family papers as I moved from Belmont to Watertown to Pelham, and at last I decided the time had come to pay them some attention. My first task was to transform them into a usable archive. I carefully sorted the papers and letters, arranged them chronologically according to author and recipient, and set up an elaborate filing system in a large file cabinet. I began with the several hundred letters that my grandparents, Barnet and Ella, had written to one another, along with a small number of letters one or another of them had written to third parties [including a charming letter written by my grandfather to the little girl who would eventually marry his oldest son and become my mother.] My grandfather had been elected to the New York Board of Alderman on the Socialist ticket in 1917, and among the papers I found a large cardboard file folder holding his Aldermanic correspondence. Although almost all the papers from that generation derived from the Wolff family, rather than from my mother's family, the Ornsteins, I did find several very early letters from her father to her mother, written before they married.

With the letters and papers were hundreds of photos, some faded and discolored with age. I could identify some of the people in the photos, but alas, many were unknown to me, and even my mother, ordinarily so careful and systematic in such matters, had failed to write their names on the back. Still and all, I sifted and sorted them as best I could and filled a number of manila envelopes with pictures of this or that branch of the family.

When I turned to the materials from my parents' generation, things were a bit easier, although even in those piles there were pictures to which I could not put names. In addition to many hundreds of letters between my father and my mother, starting in the late teens of the twentieth century and coming forward until after my sister was born in 1930, I found a sizeable collection of letters that my father had written to his boyhood friends [he kept copies], and somewhat fewer letters written by them to him. There was also a substantial pile of written and printed materials relating to my father's career, especially from the years when he served as Principal first of William Cullen Bryant High School and then of John Baum High School, both in Queens, New York.

And then there were the materials from my own generation: all the letters [and there were many of them] that my sister or I had written home from summer camp; every letter that first she and then I wrote home from college and graduate school [in 1948-49, my sister's first year at Swarthmore, Barbara wrote eighty long, multi-page letters to our parents, describing in detail what she was doing and learning.]; the hundreds of pages of letters that I wrote home during my post-college wanderjahr in Europe; and large numbers of related documents from our lives.

I spent a very long time laboriously typing my sister's letters onto my computer, arranging them by year and month and day, deducing from internal evidence the location in that series of the small number that were not dated. By the time I was done creating the entire archive, I had read every single letter and document, beginning with a brief note from my grandfather to my grandmother dated March 26, 1900. It opens "My dear friend Elka." His next letter, dated July 31, 1900, was addressed to "Dearest most beloved Elka." He was a fast worker.

I was morally certain that no one save the members of my immediate family would take the slightest interest in this massive accumulation of documents, but I felt an irresistible urge to transform them into two books -- one devoted to my grandparents, the other to my parents. Over a period of more than a year, I sat in my lovely second floor study and worked away. My plan, which I eventually brought to completion, was to write what were in effect two epistolary novels, created from the letters, the first devoted to the love affair between Barnet and Ella [as she came to be called], the second to the love story of my parents. I hoped by this literary device to bring all four of them to life through their own words. What on earth had moved me to so large an undertaking?

If I may borrow the lovely phrase first coined in 1915 by the literary critic Van Wyck Brooks, I was in search of a usable past -- an understanding of the family from which I had come that could serve as a frame for my own political and personal commitments. In the case of my grandparents, I wanted to understand more fully my grandfather's lifelong commitment to the socialist ideals that I had, somewhat mysteriously, inherited from him. I wanted as well to know my grandparents as the young, romantic couple that the letters revealed, not merely as the ancient figures from an incomprehensible past that they had been for me when I was a boy.

My need with regard to my parents was more immediate and urgent. I knew that my father had been a vigorous, energetic, hard-driving, ambitious man when young, and I even had personal memories of him like that, dating from my early and middle childhood. But something had happened to my father, not too many years after his own father died. He had started to drink heavily, to gain weight, and to retreat into himself, just at the moment in his career when he was offered an opportunity for an exciting professional advancement. I wanted to understand the causes and nature of his transformation, in part to reassure myself that I was not reenacting a dismaying pattern.

When I began crafting the book about my grandparents, I very quickly realize that it would not be enough simply to tell the story of their personal relationship through the medium of their letters. Although Barney, as he was called, earned his living as a cigar salesman for Monday & Sons, it was the Socialist Party that was his life. From the evidence of the papers and letters in the archive, it appeared that he had thrown his life and energies into socialism from a very early age. I needed to know a good deal more about the activities of the Socialist Party in New York City in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Though I have several times observed in these memoirs that I am no sort of a scholar, I did, for once in my life, engage in something very like genuine archival research.

My principal resource was a newspaper called The New York Call, usually referred to simply as The Call, which was published daily from 1908 through 1923. The Call was written in English, unlike The Forward [Vorwarts], which appeared in Yiddish. The UMass library did not have The Call on microfilm, but through interlibrary loans, they managed in the end to obtain the entire run from one source or another. By the time I was done, I had read my way rapidly through the entire fifteen years of the newspaper, scanning both for references to my grandfather, which were many indeed, and also for a more general sense of the evolution of the party in New York.

Both the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where my grandparents grew up, and Brooklyn, to which they moved after they were married, were very much assemblages of immigrant communities in those days, with enclaves in which Yiddish or German or Italian was the lingua franca. The roots of the Socialist Party of America, formally organized in 1901, lay in nineteenth century labor activism enhanced and in some cases led by European immigrants fleeing the reactionary repressions of revolutionary uprisings in 1848 and 1870. The Party fought for the rights of working men and women, grounding itself in Marx's critique of capitalism.
I found that the best way to get some organized sense of the Party's political orientation was to take a close look at the Party Platform, published in The Call on Monday, November 9, 1908. After a rafter rattling preamble full of the sort of Marxist rhetoric that gets my juices flowing, the platform enunciated a series of General Demands, Industrial Demands, and Political Demands. Taking account of a few cases in which multiple demands were listed under a single heading, I counted twenty-seven demands in all. No fewer than eighteen of these demands have been met in the one hundred two years since the promulgation of the Platform - most of them during the New Deal administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, if one sets aside the demands for alterations in the political system, such as abolition of the Senate [this was five years before the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment, remember], amendment of the constitution by majority vote, and abolition of the power of the Supreme Court to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, the only significant remaining demand that has not been met is the collective ownership of the means of production.

It is not difficult to see why reactionaries in American today cry “socialism” whenever they contemplate the social welfare programs of the New Deal and its successors. As has often been noted, FDR and the New Deal Democrats successfully separated off the social welfare component of the Socialist Party program from the call for collective ownership, and managed by using the power of the state to salvage capitalism from its inherently self-destructive tendencies. By so doing, they were able to maintain for capital the stability and viability of the system of private ownership of the means of production and production for profit rather than for use. Almost a century later, we see a society still capitalist in its fundamental structure, vastly wealthier, but actually more unequal in the distribution of the social product than was the America at which Barney and his comrades were looking. [This is, I realize, a surprising claim, but the statistics bear it out. The share of the total social product going to the poorest one tenth of the population is roughly one-half of what it was at the beginning of the century, though of course the absolute quantity of goods and services allocated per capita to the poorest Americans is much larger. In recent decades, the gap between the top and the middle has also widened.]

Local politics in those days was conducted on street corners and in meeting halls. When an election was on, the Socialist Party would send out speakers each day to prominent intersections, where they would put up some signs and an overturned box, and start speaking. There were no microphones or amplifiers. One needed a good crowd presence, a pair of leather lungs, and a ready tongue to gather a crowd. My grandfather and his close friend and ally, Abe Shiplacoff, would speak three, four, or even five nights a week in the month before election day. For stellar occasions, a flatbed truck would be rented, and the speakers would travel from location to location, repeating their speeches. My Uncle Bob, when he was in his eighties, recalled that the children and their mother would not see Barney very much in the evenings, what with Party meetings, public speaking, and the meetings of the unions in which he served as an officer.

The Call was an essential part of the campaign planning. Each day, there would be a long list of the street corners meetings with the names of the speakers, and sometimes an indication that the speeches would be in Italian or Yiddish. The notices were as much for the speakers as for the audiences. There was really no other way for the Party to get the word out as to where Barney and the others were needed. As part of my research, I bought a street map of Brooklyn and had a copy shop blow it up repeatedly until I had a huge detailed map of the section of Flatbush where Barney spoke. I mounted the map on a large piece of plaster board, and as I gathered detailed listings from the pages of The Call, I put red pins in the map at all the intersections and speech sites. The area Barney covered really wasn't very big, looked at that way. It was maybe fifteen or twenty blocks square. I was doing this in 1998, ninety years or so after the event, but save for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and few other innovations, the streets were unchanged.
Although Barney ran for office half a dozen times, his great moment came in 1917, when he and six other Socialists were elected to the New York Board of Aldermen. "The Seven Honest Men," they were called. He apparently had a truly impressive voice, and there are some wonderful descriptions in pages of The Call from 1917-18 of Barney holding forth at Aldermanic meetings. I found a great deal to be proud of as I looked deeper and deeper into Barney's political career. In 1910, he went with a delegation to a national meeting of the Party held in Chicago. The hot button issue that year was the admission of "Asiatics" to the United States. This meant Chinese workers, whose predecessors had been brought to America to work on the Trans-Continental Railroad. Some of the Socialists wanted to bar them from the country in order to limit the supply of labor, but Barney, to his eternal credit, was one of a handful of delegates who voted against the discriminatory policy.

In 1914, a series of events was unleashed that permanently changed the course of history, and with it the fate of the socialist cause throughout the world. We can trace the effects of these events, albeit from a somewhat parochial perspective, in the pages of the Call, but oddly, there are few if any references to the events in Barney’s letters to Ella.

On June 28, 1914, the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalists. One month later, on July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia [or “Servia,” as it was always referred to in the Call.] In quick succession, Germany declared war on Russia and France, England declared war on Germany, and Austria declared war on Russia. The Great War had begun. No event, save the French Revolution, has had a more profound transformative effect on modern world politics [with the possible exception of the Chinese Communist Revolution.] The complicated structure of European alliances was shattered, America’s isolation from world affairs was permanently ended, Africa underwent yet another colonial subjection, and the hopes of socialists everywhere for an international alliance of working people against exploitative capitalism were dealt a death blow.

The initial reaction of the Call and its readers to the war was complicated in several different ways. One of the central tenets of the Marxist analysis of capitalism was that the internationalizing, centralizing tendencies of capital would have the unintentional consequence of progressively unifying wage laborers, transforming them into a genuinely self-conscious working class. As described by Marx in The Communist Manifesto and elsewhere, this process begins in individual factories, where previously isolated workers, operating in a “putting-out’ system, are brought together for reasons of capitalist efficiency of production and first come to realize their common interest in opposing the exploitation of the owners. As capital revolutionizes the process of production and distribution, workers in one factory, then in one industry, then in several regions of the same nation, and eventually workers throughout the world discover their common interest and join forces in ever larger and better organized combinations. The relentless transformation of the social relations of production drives the development of greater ideological understanding.

As a result of this analysis, which seemed to have been confirmed by the half century of economic developments following the publication of Capital in 1867, socialists confidently expected that the working classes of the world’s most ideologically advanced nations, Germany and France, would refuse to fight one another at the behest of their capitalist bosses. There seemed to be every reason to believe that socialist solidarity would trump appeals to nationalist loyalty. So, for example, in the July 27, 1914 issue of the Call, just a day before the first declaration of war, there appeared the bold headline:


The failure of working-class solidarity, and the willingness of millions of European and American workingmen to fight one another for four bloody years, fatally undermined the hopes for international solidarity. Patriotism, it seemed, was stronger than class consciousness.

During this time, the New York socialists were for the most part immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe with strong ties to their countries of origin. As the pages of the Call make clear, there was as much interest in events in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, or Petrograd as there was in the doings in Washington.
Ironically, the contradictory factors of ideology and nationality combined to produce a strong pacifist or anti-war sentiment in the socialist ranks. Large segments of American society responded similarly, although for different reasons, but over time, and in response to the increasingly destructive submarine attacks on trans-Atlantic shipping, American sentiment in general began to shift very strongly in favor of support for the British and French. As war fever rose, the socialist opposition came more and more to be seen at a treasonous betrayal of the nation by foreigners who couldn’t be trusted.

At first, the American debate focused on preparedness for war, with the socialists trying unsuccessfully to persuade their fellow workers that the war in Europe was nothing more than a struggle for markets between the bosses. Individual socialist leaders took varying positions. Meyer London, one of the Socialist leaders who was by now a member of Congress, offered tempered support for war preparedness, a fact that infuriated some of his comrades in the movement.

By late 1916 and early 1917, the sinking of American ships by German submarines had generated considerable support for a war effort, and on April 6, 1917, the United States formally declared war on Germany. Now the opposition of the socialists was seen as straight-out treason, and a frenzy of red-baiting and government repression began that extended throughout the country. On June 15, 1917, shortly after America’s entry into the war, Congress passed the Espionage Act, a far-reaching act of repression that contributed to the hysterical sentiment arising in the nation. All things German became anathema to good Americans. German classical music disappeared from concert programs, even the study of the German language was suspect. My uncle Bob told the story of a Professor of German at City College in New York who walked into his departmental office at the beginning of the Fall semester in 1918 to discover that all of his courses had been canceled. “Very well,” Bob claims he replied, ‘I shall be at home if you want me,” and he walked out, content to be paid for not working. According to Bob, the College relented and rescheduled his courses. Similar things were happening elsewhere. At The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the entire German Department was fired!


Anonymous said...

Practice makes perfect.............................................................

NotHobbes said...

For me, the sure sign of an enjoyable read is the characters springing to life in my mind- as if a theatre production playing out for my benefit only, a personal audience with the writer`s history.
These memoirs are thoroughly enjoyable!

Monnika Jacob said...