James Weinstein, 1926-2005
James Weinstein, 1926-2005
James Weinstein -- author, historian, teacher, editor, publisher, founder of In These Times magazine, and an important figure in the life of the mind of American radicalism for four decades -- died Thursday morning at his home on the North Side of Chicago, after a long bout with brain cancer. On his death, Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- the Independent member of Congress who is a democratic socialist -- told the AP, "Jim Weinstein was one of the intellectual leaders of the American progressive movement."
Jimmy Weinstein was the son of privilege, but he always put his inherited wealth at the service of his lifelong radical ideals. A New York City native, he was politically active in left-wing causes from the age of 14, and -- after leaving his undergraduate studies at Cornell in 1944 to serve 19 months in the Navy as World War II came to a close -- he returned to finish taking his degree, then went on to graduate school at Columbia University, where he joined the Communist Party. Jimmy broke with the CP in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary -- and later, as a historian, Jimmy became one of the Communist Party's most intelligent and perceptive critics.
Jimmy Weinstein was the founder (and principal financial angel) of three important radical publications. In the early '60s, while teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Madison -- a hotbed of campus radicalism -- he was one of the co-founders of Studies on the Left, an intellectual journal that saw itself as the counterpart of the British New Left Review, and whose brilliant editorial board included, besides Weinstein, disciples of the great American radical historian William Appleman Williams, who was teaching at Madison at the time (and whose influential 1961 reinterpretation, Contours of American History, remains essential reading for radicals today). It was in these years that, as a 16-year-old member of the national council of the New Left group Students for a Democratic Society, I first met Jimmy.
By 1966, Jimmy had moved back to New York, and his townhouse in the Chelsea neighborhood -- with its capacious garden -- was the frequent host to radical gatherings and fundraisers. That year, Jimmy -- who, throughout his life, was convinced of the importance of electoral politics as an arena for struggle -- ran for Congress as an Independent on Manhattan's West Side against an entrenched, corrupt Democratic machine hack. Jimmy's self-financed, radical, independent, anti-Vietnam war candidacy, which I supported, coalesced behind it a diverse spectrum of activists from the anti-war, civil rights, and radical movements of the '60s, as well as many rank-and-filers from the labor movement (the district in which Jimmy ran included the Amalgamated Clothing Workers' huge housing project in Chelsea, home to many working-class veterans of the Socialist and Communist movements, and which gave Jimmy -- who, of course, lost the general election badly -- a very respectable vote. It was in that same district, four years later, that I managed the successful campaign for Congress of Bella Abzug, the first radical elected to the House of Representatives since Vito Marcantonio).
On moving to San Francisco in 1967, Jimmy founded (and financed) the Socialist Review, a now-defunct intellectual journal, and also the Modern Times bookstore, which still exists. But Jimmy's most lasting creation was the biweekly In These Times, now in its 29th year of publication. I.T.T. consumed the better part of Jimmy's bankroll and time from 1976 until he retired as both editor and publisher in 1999. I.T.T., which originally billed itself as a socialist newspaper, over the years became a magazine and dropped the socialist label, but never abandoned its role as the editorial reflection of radical left activists' concerns and of the social and political movements of the day. In 2002, Seven Stories Press published a book celebrating the 25th anniversary of I.T.T., entitled "Appeal to Reason." Edited by former I.T.T. managing editor Craig Aaron, and with a foreword by Jimmy, it is a collection of excerpts from I.T.T. over the years, plus 20 specially-written essays by, among, others, Barbara Ehrenreich, Juan Gonzalez, and Robert McChesney (and including one by me on the unfortunate death of gay liberation). You can order this book by clicking here.
In These Times continues to play a unique role on the American media spectrum -- for example, right after 9/11, in the climate of nationalist hysteria that reigned after the dastardly attack on the Twin Towers, it was about the only place where I could publish a series of trenchant articles opposing the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan (articles which brought death threats to me and bomb threats to I.T.T. -- you can read one of them by clicking here.) I have been a Contributing Editor of I.T.T. for a number of years.
Jimmy wrote five books -- among the most significant, to me, is his The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925, which belongs on the bookshelf of anyone truly interested in the history of the American left, alongside such other key works as the monumental and indispensable, two-volume 1952 history, Socialism in American Life, by Donald Drew Egbert and Stow Persons, which spans a century and a half; the ex-Communist Theodore Draper's series of seminal books tracing the history of the Communist Party in this country, including The Roots of American Communism (on the split in America's large Socialist Party after the Bolshevik revolution that led to the CPUSA's formation, and on the CP's early years), and American Communism and Soviet Russia (the Egbert-Persons and Draper books were all financed by the Ford Foundation); Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left; and Christopher Lasch's The New Radicalism in America 1889-1963: The Intellectual As a Social Type. One not only does need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing (contrary to the assertion in Mr. Zimmerman's famous '60s song), one needs a firm understanding of the history and climatology of the American left -- and of its failures as well as its successes -- before one can begin to construct strategies for its reinvention. Along with these other books, Jimmy Weinstein's work as a historian contributed mightily to that understanding.
Jimmy helped keep alive a history that has almost disappeared from the American consciousness. In the years immediately preceding the First World War, the socialist movement laid down deep roots in the United States, in spite of many obstacles. Jimmy Weinstein's brilliant study of the Socialist Party altered many of the prevailing assumptions about American radicalism, showing that at its numerical peak in 1912, the party had 118,000 members well distributed throughout the country. It claimed 323 English and foreign-language publications with a total circulation probably in excess of two million. The largest of the socialist newspapers, The Appeal to Reason of Girard, Kansas, had a weekly circulation of 761,747. In 1912, the year the party's leader, Eugene V. Debs polled 6 percent of the Presidential vote, Socialists held 1,200 offices in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states. As late as 1918, they elected 32 state legislators. In 1916, they elected Meyer London to Congress and made important gains in the municipal elections of several large cities.
Among many points made in his writings -- both in his books, and in scholarly articles -- Weinstein argued coherently that the Communist Party U.S.A. helped squander that rich legacy of native American radicalism by its slavish devotion and subservience to Soviet Russia -- which was utterly irrelevant to the needs and experience of working-class America. He was skillful in tracing the shift to the ultra-sectarian line the CP adopted after World War II. In that post-war period, Moscow ordered the dumping of the man who had been the CP leader in the '30s and early '40s, Earl Browder -- who had coined the somewhat absurd slogan, "Communism is 20th Century Americanism," dissolved the party and transformed it into the Communist Political Association, and ordered it en masse into the Democratic Party to build its left wing, to support FDR and to fight the Dixiecrats. Browder was replaced replaced by the slavish Stalinist William Z. Foster, a longtime CP figure who had been the leader of the huge 1919 steel strike (many radical wags used to say the "z" in Foster's name stood for "zig-zag"). This change in the party's line was defined by what was famously known in party circles as the "Duclos Letter" -- a letter from the French Communist leader, the Stalinist Jacques Duclos. The letter -- ghost-written in Moscow, and published in the U.S. in the CPUSA's ideological journal, Political Affairs -- ordered the dramatic shift in the CPUSA's orientation. This shift, as Weinstein argued, was the latest embodiment of the CP's eternal fidelity to Moscow, and gave the domestic Cold Warriors the hammer and tongs with which to destroy the large U.S. left of the Popular Front period -- including within the labor movement. The change in the party line especially insisted that the 1948 presidential candidacy of former FDR Vice President Henry Wallace be run as an independent effort through the creation of the Progressive Party, instead of as a challenge in the primaries to the unpopular Harry Truman. The pro-Soviet line which Wallace's Communist and pro-Communist advisers persuaded him to follow, at Foster's direction, isolated Wallace-supporting radicals within the labor and other progressive movements, leaving them exposed and prey to the anti-Communist provisions of the new, Congressionally-passed Taft-Hartley labor act and similar legislation aimed at destroying the left's influence. Wallace -- who initially had been getting 12% in the opinion polls -- saw his candidacy destroyed by his pro-Sovietism, and he got only a million votes. Weinstein was correct in identifying this CP shift as a watershed moment in the history of the U.S. left. Jimmy continued to mine these themes in his last book, The Long Detour (excerpts from which you can read by clicking on the title.)
I didn't always agree with Jimmy Weinstein on everything, and in the last years of his life I took strong exception to several things that he wrote. But he was a good-humored, warm-hearted man, a valued mentor to many younger radicals and journalists, and his commitment to democratic socialism and social justice was evergreen and vivid. He frequently published views with which he disagreed during his two decades as I.T.T.'s editor (unlike the editors of some other left and progressive publications today). As an obituary in the Chicago Tribune noted yesterday, "He was also very proud of being the first white asked to join the Original 40 Club, an elite African-American men's organization." Jimmy was a valued comrade, and will be missed by many, including me. I join in sending profound sympathy and condolences to his family -- his wife, Beth Maschinot, and his two children, Lisa Weinstein of Chicago and Joshua Weinstein of San Francisco -- and to all my friends and colleagues at I.T.T. You can honor Jimmy's memory by subscribing to In These Times, if you haven't already, by clicking here -- and, if you already have, by making a donation to I.T.T., which you can do by clicking here.