Standing fast: Julius Jacobson (1922-2003)

Submitted by Anon on 25 November, 2003 - 5:10

Julius Jacobson - Julie to his many friends and comrades - founder and editor for more than 40 years of the American socialist journal New Politics, died on 8 March 2003. In the first of three articles Barry Finger appraises his life. The articles first appeared in the Summer 2003 edition of New Politics.
It has been said that 25 years in the life of a small magazine is the equivalent of an individual attaining the age of one hundred. By that standard New Politics, for which Julie travailed to his last breath, has truly earned its place as one of the venerable mainstays of American radicalism.

As a socialist committed to keeping radical politics vibrant and relevant, Julie would have repudiated any tribute as an unforgivable lapse into sentimentality. Julie was remarkable for revealing so little of himself in his writings-his political passions and moral steadfastness, his rollicking wit and historical sweep, the vigour and brilliancy of mind, of course, permeate his pieces, but of Julie the man, the historical personality, there is precious little. He was, in this manner, a scion of the movement that fashioned him-wary of the cult-breeding virus that arises from the association of socialist analysis with the projection of any individual personality. There is, therefore, only one way to write about him in accordance with how he led his life: to appraise his writing as if he were still alive and could read that assessment with his own uniquely critical, skeptical and combative sensibility in anticipation of the almost certain sharp rejoinder to follow. This, certainly, will come. Still, in tow to the enormity and immediacy of this loss, one must be forgiven from straying, at least in part, and for this unique purpose from his wishes.

One of a vanishing breed of working class intellectuals, the product of the heroic socialist struggles of an earlier age, Julie began life as the son of Eastern European immigrants, his father a (largely unemployed) stevedore. The family was immersed in the left-leaning, secular culture of immigrant Jewry. His parents read the social democratic Forward for the "news" but the Yiddish language Communist daily Freiheit for what they believed was the emes, the truth behind the news. As a child, perhaps as early as the tender age of 9, Julie was recruited by his older brother, Leon, to the Young Pioneers, the pre-teen youth group of the Communist Party. Julie always insisted that political radicalisation at such an early age was not the aberration then that it seems today.

As a teenager, in defiance of Leon, Julie jumped ship from the Communist Youth League for the Young People's Socialist League (Trotsky's Fourth International). Julie's new affiliations caused a political breach in the family that was never wholly repaired.

These were the waning days of the unified American Trotskyist movement-days of street corner agitators, of battles between the anti-Semitic silver shirted followers of William Pelly, and the largely Jewish Bronx chapter of the YPSL, days in which Trotskyist meetings were violently disrupted by Stalinists; a few short years that formed an epoch in which capitalism seemed so rotted out that world revolution, "permanent revolution", by the oppressed masses seemed the only realistic hope for humanity.

It was a time in which the thoroughly Stalinised Communist Party was aligning itself with big city machines and "progressive" capitalists, where social democracy could no longer find its bearings. It was a time, the last time, in which an entire historical movement, revolutionary Marxism, could still be seen as concentrated both politically and morally in the remarkable personality of one intellectually incorruptible individual [Trotsky]. And it was this Trotskyism that produced a youth movement far better skilled in matters of theory, history and tactics than the youth of any other group of its day. This youth movement was almost half of the Trotskyist movement of the late 30s, with a robust and vibrant internal public life, most of whose members gravitated around Max Shachtman.

But it was also a period in which history began to deviate from the classical Marxist trajectory on which Trotskyism was based. New forms of property and of class rule were beginning to take shape, forms which were not anticipated by the old formulas. Trotsky's attempts at reconciling the emerging historical data with his revolutionary theory were becoming increasingly tenuous, forced and unconvincing. He began to betray a doctrinaire, mechanical bent to basic theory that stood in stark contradiction to the unblinkered fearlessness with which he interpreted unfolding events. Unable to follow his insights to their unorthodox conclusions, Trotsky who, better than any other leader, understood the dangers of Stalin's abandonment of international revolution in favor of building "socialism in one country", intellectually disarmed his followers, in the end, by his failure to re-conceive Stalinism as a new form of class society.

To that remnant of the movement that did not flinch from the full implications of what was transpiring in Russia-the Shachtmanites, who were exiled into a separate organisational existence as the Workers Party-was where Julie was to find his political home and where he would remain until its dissolution in the 1950s. [The other half of the American Trotskyist movement was grouped in the Socialist Workers' Party.]

It was in the Workers Party Julie's that political and literary skills were shaped and his flinty and unyielding polemical edge honed. This is where his lifelong fixation with the broader intellectual, political and cultural corruptions of Stalinism, of bureaucratic collectivism as it became known, was incubated and nourished. This is where the inseparability of socialism and democracy, which lent the struggle against both Stalinism and capitalism a theoretically unassailable basis and political program, became the touchstone of Julie's politics.

It was also where Julie first met his wife Phyllis, both teenagers in the Yipsel. Julie's territorial domain at the time was the Bronx and the Manhattan party headquarters. But Phyllis came from Brownsville in the hinterlands of Brooklyn. Ordinarily such romances were doomed to heartbreak. Rare indeed was the relationship that could withstand the demands of a three-hour roundtrip subway journey from one end of New York City to the other. Legion are the tales of movement's loves lost, crushed by the limitations of mass transit. This was a singular exception, a veritable legend of its time, whose details are still enviously recounted by aged veterans of the Trotskyist and socialist movements.

In time this teenage romance was to blossom into a full political and intellectual partnership, a rounded friendship of shared passions-not only of politics, but of art and music, of travel and antiques, of fine literature and epicurean delights; of passions pursued inconspicuously on the shoestring budget of the skilled machinist Julie was to become. To be sure, there were plenty of lean years. But as a life together that of the Jacobsons remains a standing rebuke to those who would extol the supposed socialist virtues of humourless grey existence consumed by Jimmy Higgins drudgery and wanton self-deprivation much the way a contemporary sensibility is repulsed by the pretence that monkish austerity brings the members of a religious order closer to god. Julie never worshipped at any shrine, and certainly not that of working class squalor. He had nothing to prove.

When the country [USA] entered the war, the Workers Party industrialized, unionising its cadres to position the movement for an anticipated upsurge in militancy following the war. Julie, although a skilled industrial worker at General Electric, was nevertheless drafted. He served at the tail end of the Battle of the Bulge, where he narrowly escaped death after a mortar shell pierced the boxcar he was travelling to the front in, killing half of the GIs inside.

Even more riveting than this brush with death was another incident whose effects Julie would never shake off. While travelling to the front, Julie witnessed a large contingent of white soldiers firing as if in sport on an encampment of black American soldiers. The officers in charge displayed no interest, more accurately found it amusing, that their racist troops were engaged in target practice against their own countrymen. This episode of military lynching flagrantly contradicted the Popular Front nonsense circulating on the left that the Second World War was a conscious fight against fascism. That the war was the "good war" was a proposition that Julie would never theoretically or practically entertain. It transformed Julie's anti-racist commitments from the political realm to the visceral.

Julie also took part in the liberation of Paris in 1944. He made contact with French and ex-patriate Greek Trotskyists, most memorably one who went by the party name of Pablo, and managed to smuggle supplies of clothing, blankets, food and socialist literature to these beleaguered comrades. Shachtman sent word to Julie to be wary of Pablo, whom Shachtman believed to be seriously unmoored, as evidenced not least by Pablo's fanciful if not fantastical perspective at the time that the American troops were at the precipice of revolt. Years later-after subsequent rifts in the Fourth International, which had become, not least under the pernicious influence of Pablo, little more than a leftwing of Stalinism as far as the Workers Party was concerned-Pablo proved incapable of maintaining even the pretense of civility with Julie, despite their once warm wartime friendship.

Upon discharge, the Party maintained its industrial perspective. But Julie disagreed with this, objecting that the meager and thinning resources of the Party were inadequate to offer young workers a meaningful industrial alternative. Where Julie did see organisational prospects was not in the high schools or among "proletarian youth" but on campus, where returning GIs benefited from unprecedented educational opportunities. Julie abandoned his job as a machinist for General Electric and plunged himself into college organizing for the Socialist Youth League, which later stripped the SP's youth group from its parent organization to form the Young Socialist League, and made a major contribution to the burgeoning of a campus Third Camp. The SYL had good-sized units in New York, Chicago and Berkeley and had groups in dozens of other cities and universities including Oberlin, Detroit, Los Angeles and Denver.

It was in those years that Julie wrote the "Youth Corner" column for Labor Action and founded and edited the campus magazine Anvil which later merged with Student Partisan in 1950. Formally formed by the New York Student Federation Against War, its political tendency was generally that of the Independent Socialist League, which the Workers Party had now become, diversified somewhat by association with pacifist clubs and unaffiliated students sympathetic to the ISL's anti-war and militant viewpoint. This remarkable journal, with a circulation of over 4,000, whose pieces were never unfortunately collected for reprint, contained essays by the likes of Richard Wright, Lewis Coser, Irving Howe, Hal Draper, Michael Harrington, Paul Goodman, Harold Rosenberg, George Rawick, C Wright Mills, Isaac Rosenfeld, Harvey Swados and Dan Wakefield. It helped introduce an American audience to the writings of Simone de Beauvoir.

Julie contributed two pieces in particular that were symptomatic of later enduring themes. "Do Communists have the Right to Teach?" was an editorial in the inaugural issue. It was an attack on Sidney Hook, who, by that time, had become a sophisticated apologist for McCarthyism. Julie's rebuttal remains a ringing and spirited endorsement of free speech and civil liberties noteworthy not only for the archivists-contrasting the consistent stand of independent socialists with that of the wavering liberal anti-Communist left-but for its eerie contemporary relevance. Julie's implacable defense of civil liberties was extended and developed in forthcoming articles, written under his pen name Julius Falk (Falk being his mother's maiden name), in the ISL's journal, The New International. These concerns, that "the democratic principles of the Bill of Rights are often ground to dust in the social mechanism of bourgeois democracy," were continuously revisited in the course of his political and literary career. In the penultimate article that Julie penned for the Summer 2002 issue of New Politics, he voiced a warning that unlike the 1950s witch hunts, that were made short shrift of by the Army and Eisenhower, the current "War on Democracy is recognizably a war by the ruling class and its State".

Another thread of enduring relevance was laid out in "War, Realism and the Lesser Evil." It remains to this day one of the most concise and concentrated statements of Third Camp foreign policy analysis, whose relevance outlives the particular context in which it arose. However, it too was set against a raw political backdrop that made liberalism suspect and radicalism subversive. In it Julie tackled openly and imaginatively the knotty maze-like logic of "lesser evilism" that seduced an army of retreating leftists into believing that they could lend critical support to the American establishment while remaining in the ultimate service of socialism. This is a theme that continued and could not but continue to find resonance in his numerous subsequent anti-war polemics. But it is in Julie's elegant parting thoughts that can be seen the animating impulse of a lifetime of socialist activism. It is a piercingly simple and yet more profound statement than can be found in the most pretentious of treatises on dialectical methodology, over-determination and universal schemata often associated with Marxism and a telling rebuke to the "end of (socialist) ideology" theories of then and now. "Nevertheless," Julie concluded, "guarantees can not be given to those who ask 'How do I know the Third Camp will succeed?' We do know that neither capitalism nor Stalinism can succeed in solving a single basic social problem. We do know that the potential for socialism exists. More than that we do not need to know for making a political, realistic and moral choice."

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.