Monday, September 13, 2010

Irwin Silber 1925-2010

By Ethan Young
Submitted to Portside (CCDS)
September 12, 2010

Irwin Silber in Lennon Park, Cuba with his great grandson
Irwin Silber died at the age of 84 on September 8, 2010, after complications from Alzheimer's. Silber's life intersected with the emergence of the radical left out of the Eisenhower/McCarthy era, and the critical cultural expression that broke barriers throughout the country and the world. Silber, well known as a leading figure in the post-World War II folk music revival, also reached and influenced a broad audience of left activists with his political criticism and analysis.

Silber grew up during the Depression in the Lower East Side of Manhattan - a time and place of grinding poverty and radical ferment. As a New York Communist born and bred, his first political campaign was in grade school, a fight for universal penny milk. As a teenager, he attended the Communist Party sponsored Wo-Chi-Ca (Workers' Children's Camp), where Paul Robeson not only sang for the children, but played baseball with them. At the age of 19, already a college graduate, Silber and friends formed the Folksay group, developing a cultural form that highlighted politics and a sense of solidarity. They created a series of American square dance calls with pro-union messages, and performed European folk dances learned from their neighborhood.

It was a natural transition to the post-World War II folk music scene, which coincided with the advent of modern jazz, rhythm and blues, urban blues, and an urbanizing country/western style, together changing the shape of popular culture. In 1947, at 22, Silber helped Pete Seeger found People's Songs, which promoted the work of such folk artists as Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), and numerous others - some political, some simply committed to the continuation of American folk traditions. The political basis for People's Songs and its successors came from the Popular Front culture of the late 1930s: seeking out cultural expressions rooted in working class experience, with a progressive political edge, and implicitly challenging the commercial output of the "entertainment industry." It was the alternative culture of the day.

People's Songs lasted two years - done in by anticommunist repression. But Silber, Seeger, and others regrouped as People's Artists in 1950, launching Sing Out!, an influential "little magazine" devoted to collecting and commenting on folk music old and new.

Silber served as editor from 1951 to 1967, during which folk music exploded as a pop phenomenon - both homogenized versions like the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, and the more pointedly political artists like the Weavers, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Sing Out! still survives.

The folk music "boom" marked a major cultural shift: an unprecedented mass migration of public taste away  from the antiseptic, repressed, politically petrified culture that dominated from the wartime consensus through the red scare to what we would now call the "Mad Men" years.

Folksingers were able to reach an audience of millions with lyrics critical of war, racism and the American right, never before presented via mass media. Silber's critical eye, ear and pen played no small part in this.

Silber was not, however, a cheerleader for the commercialization of folk. He consistently pointed out the expropriation and whitewashing of black musical forms, and the ghettoization of black artists. When a television network launched "Hootenanny," a weekly variety hour showcasing folk acts, in 1963, Silber wasted no time in demanding that the network end its blacklisting of his friend Seeger, inarguably the most influential folk music figure. ABC refused, and other artists boycotted the show in response. In Sing Out!, Silber famously questioned Dylan's seeming turn from acoustic "protest" to electrified poetry. Unlike the folk purists, Silber's concern was political - a fear that Dylan was leaving his movement base behind. "Irwin had great respect for Dylan's work and feared that `we' were losing our best poet to the introspective personal stuff then becoming popular with singer/songwriters," recalled his wife, the singer Barbara Dane. Silber later admitted that he had asked too much of a poet who "is communicating where it counts."

During his Sing Out! years, Silber also worked with Moses Asch at Folkways Records, and helped found Oak Publications, which released numerous song collections, including the Depression-era collection Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967), and the Civil Rights Movement songbook We Shall Overcome (1963). Silber's own groundbreaking collections included Songs of the Civil War (1960) and Songs of the Great American West (1967). He co-edited The Vietnam Songbook (1969) with Dane.

In 1967, Silber, having long since left the Communist Party, moved more directly into the rapidly radicalizing peace and black liberation movements. He became cultural editor of the New York-based weekly Guardian, which served as the voice of the independent left since 1948.As activism grew more militant and strove to define a new revolutionary politics, against the backdrop of worldwide upheaval, Silber's columns tried to bridge a Marxist line and new radical visions. In 1968 he made contact with revolutionary intellectuals from all over the world - particularly the Third World - at the Havana Cultural Congress. The messages he heard, collected in his anthology of papers from the Congress, Voices of National Liberation (1970), pointed to a convergence of an international left against U.S. imperialism.

Silber's views were welcomed by some in the movement, but his determined standpoint was always controversial. When the Weathermen appeared in 1969, the Guardian took a strong stand against their  politics of small-group violence and their rejection of "white workers." In 1970, an uprising by a faction of the staff nearly destroyed the paper; Silber's Marxist criticism was a large point of contention.

The Guardian survived the split. Silber became executive editor and along with managing editor Jack Smith, moved the orientation of the paper in the direction of the `revolutionary' states-most significantly the People's Republic of China, which was just beginning to reenter the international scene after the internal crisis of the Cultural Revolution. The Guardian helped in China's re-engagement with the outside world, and launched tours of China (impossible in previous years) just as the ice between Washington and Beijing was melting. The Guardian became a rallying point for old supporters of Mao, as well as activists and intellectuals who were finding inspiration in the first glimpses of the once-forbidden "Red China."

At the same time, Silber and Smith brought the views of newly-formed Maoist groups to the Guardian's national audience. A series of public forums, well-covered in the paper, allowed independent activists to compare and contrast the political lines of these rapidly growing cadre groups with names like October League, Revolutionary Union and Black Workers Congress - the "new communist movement." Silber's critical stance made enemies of one group after another, as the effort to build a new revolutionary party ended in sectarian squabbling. A 1975 trip to East Asia, in which Silber met Vietnamese and Chinese Communist leaders and deposed Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk, confronted him with the increasing tensions between China and its nominal allies. When these tensions began to break Beijing's old ties with Hanoi, as well as with liberation movements in the Mideast and Africa, the Guardian raised criticisms of China which eventually led to the end of the tours, Chinese library subscriptions, and other financial benefits the paper enjoyed.

By late 1975 a broad rejection of China's foreign policy broke out in the anti-imperialist left, with Silber and the Guardian playing the leading role. Sides were taken between Beijing and the governments of Cuba and Angola - which had recently won independence from Portugal. China accused the two governments of broadening the Soviet sphere by proxy as they fought U.S.- and apartheid South Africa-backed guerrilla groups. Internationally, China found itself isolated from former allies, but Maoist groups in the West tended to defend China uncritically.  Silber and many other sympathizers of Mao's China turned away, and support for Cuba, Vietnam and the rising revolutions in the Mideast, Africa and Central America was reinforced.

The response from groups and individuals supporting the Guardian's stand was so strong that Silber launched an effort to regroup the "anti-revisionist, anti-dogmatist" left into yet another "party-building movement." Silber was a major figure in this project, but by no means the only one, as it developed a life of its own. The
Guardian executive editor joined forces with a California-based group which eventually became the cadre organization Line of March. This led to strains with the Guardian staff over loyalty, leading to Silber's demotion and eventual dismissal from the paper. (His new comrades' defense of Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, which destroyed the Pol Pot regime, was in direct opposition to the Guardian's position, and the last straw.) As co-editor of the Line of March journal and their newspaper Frontline, Silber moved to Oakland, and was instrumental in deepening his group's - and the left's - understanding of the interconnection and dynamics of war and racism peculiar to U.S. society. By the late 80s, the group became the strongest proponent of Gorbachev's reforms in the U.S. left. But this second party-building effort barely outlived the first, as the collapse of the Soviet model sent shockwaves through the left internationally.

After Line of March folded, Silber wrote Socialism: What Went Wrong? (1994), based on research from a trip to the former Soviet Union. The book confronted the question that so many of his generation wouldn't, or couldn't face: Can socialism exist without democracy? Silber concluded that some basic tenets he championed for decades - including Lenin's verdict on imperialism as `moribund' - were outmoded, but still insisted that an alternative to capitalism is both necessary and possible.

His final book, Press Box Red (2003), is a biography of Daily Worker sports writer Lester Rodney, who used journalistic skills, critical thought, open politics and determination to break "tradition's chains." Like Irwin Silber.

Along with Barbara Dane, Silber is survived by his two sons Josh and Frederic, daughter Nina, her husband Louis Hutchins and their children Benjamin and Franny, stepchildren Jesse Cahn and Pablo and Nina Menendez, along with step-grandson Osamu Menendez, and two step-great-grandchildren Mauro and Adriana.

Memorial meetings will be announced later this year.

Irwin Silber and the Guardian

By Jack A. Smith
Sept 13, 2010
Submitted by the author to portside

I would like to comment on Ethan Young's Portside  article on the death of Irwin Silber. I was on the Guardian staff from 1963 to 1984 as a reporter, managing editor and editor, and worked with Irwin for a number of years. I thought Young did a good job. Of course I would have written it somewhat differently, but no matter. I want to make a couple of points, particularly on the question of party-building, which led to Irwin's departure from the Guardian.

We were not close but worked reasonably well together for most of the years Irwin was at the Guardian, and I respect his accomplishments - from his contributions in popularizing folk music to his dedication to socialism. I was a great supporter of his cultural criticisms, especially his film reviews, and was mainly responsible for bringing Irwin to the newspaper.

Irwin was invited to write a weekly cultural column for the Guardian after it became a workers' cooperative in 1967. The paper itself, earlier named the National Guardian, had existed as the independent voice of the "progressive" left since 1948, and had many political achievements to its credit before the staff assumed ownership responsibilities.

Irwin's political influence at the Guardian was established in 1972 when he became a full-time member of the cooperative, and simultaneously was named executive editor responsible for the paper's business department, while continuing to write his column. As part of this promotion package, Irwin was elected to the co-op's five person Coordinating Committee, its leadership body.

The Portside article suggests "Silber's Marxist criticism was a large point of contention" during the 1970 "uprising by a faction of the staff [that] nearly destroyed the paper." I doubt Irwin's columns were a factor in this episode. At issue was opposition to the paper's development of an openly expressed Marxist-Leninist point of view during the three years since becoming a cooperative. A rowdy crowd of opponents, including some newer members of the staff, a few outside contributors and forces off the staff  with views extending from social-democratic to anarchist invaded and attacked our office, and threatened members of the cooperative. Files were destroyed, and s ome equipment was wrecked. A calling card was left in the form of a bayonet sunk clean through the thick top of my desk.

While continuing to principally serve the broad antiwar and anti-imperialist U.S. left, and to feature the struggles of the oppressed peoples of the third world, the Guardian gravitated ever closer politically to the revolutionary developments taking place in the People's Republic of China under the leadership of the CCP and Chairman Mao. Irwin was in complete unity with the paper's political line when he became a member of the leadership and played a role in developing that line.

The events that led to Irwin's censure and eventual dismissal from the Guardian cooperative did indeed relate to party-building within the "New Communist Movement" composed of various Maoist groups in the U.S. It wasn't a question of "loyalty" but of exceeding a mandate.

One of the executive editor's responsibilities was to nurture and build what we called Guardian Clubs. In the early 1970s combination news gathering and circulation building groups were established in a number of  cities. These small clubs helped build the paper (which by that time had about 25,000 subscribers, double the circulation before the paper was staff owned). In time some discussion groups formed in a few clubs as well.

Irwin was dedicated to party-building and evidently viewed the clubs, and the Guardian newspaper, as a vehicle to help construct a new communist party, and started taking steps in that direction. Not every member of the Coordinating Committee or the staff, however, was fully aware of this development until it was underway for a time.

While there had been considerable interest within the cooperative in party-building beginning in 1970, this cooled down in a few years - partly because of China's implicit alliance with U.S. imperialism against the USSR, and partly because a number of party-building staffers had departed the Guardian after joining such groups as the CP (ML) and the RCP. Not all the departures were voluntary.

In addition, some members of the leadership, including myself, were extremely dubious about using the Guardian and Guardian Clubs to build another Maoist communist party. My opposition was based on two main reasons:
(1) I believed the paper was exceptionally valuable to the movement just as it was - an influential, independent and explicitly M-L publication with a fairly broad appeal.
(2) I had little confidence that the times required the formation of yet one more small Maoist party.

The upshot was that Irwin lost an annual election to the leadership group and, after a while, he was asked to leave the cooperative, in 1978 I believe.

I still keep the red flag flying. Looking back, of course, it's easy to spot the Guardian's political errors, not all of which were insubstantial. But I believe the paper's strengths were far more important then its weaknesses - particularly in the quality of the journalistic product and its outreach with a revolutionary socialist message to progressives and anti-imperialists.

We did not speak again after Irwin left the cooperative some 32 years ago. But I never doubted that Irwin Silber made contributions to the Guardian's strengths and the struggle for socialism.

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