Murry Weiss, 1915-1981: Quintessential 20th Century Marxist

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When socialist feminist leader Murry Weiss died on December 26, 1981 at age 66, many colleagues recalled his zestful words on the lifestyle of a political radical:

To fight for revolution with comrades; to share, disagree, resolve, and unite for new ventures and fresh exploration; to create a Leninist party within the heartland of imperialism — this is my idea of the good life, the fulfilled life, the life of challenge and meaning.

Murry was a magnificent, lifelong Marxist who never stopped radiating his belief in the vast human potential for revolutionary change.

One of the founders of American Trotskyism, Weiss was renowned as a superb organizer, teacher, theoretician, writer, and editor. He was committed to the imperative of Lenin and Trotsky to build and sustain the revolutionary party through good times and bad, and his impact was monumental for five and a half decades.

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Weiss joined the Freedom Socialist Party in 1979. He brought to it a half century of stature as a front-runner American Marxist.

In 1926, at age 11, he was a Young Pioneer, associated with the Communist Party.

In his teens, he became a Trotskyist, and he served as a full time professional revolutionary and national leader of the Socialist Workers Party until the early 1960s. After the party veered off into centrist and bureaucratic directions that he could not countenance, he left it.

He was in his 50s and had congenital heart problems. But he set out boldly to learn to earn a living outside the party. He enrolled in college, received a master’s degree, and entered private practice as a psychoanalyst, a skill at which he came to excel.

In 1976, he visited Seattle to further relations with the FSP, and together they helped found the Committee for a Revolutionary Socialist Party (CRSP) the next year. Two years later he cast his lot with the party of revolutionary feminism, became chairperson of its National Committee, and lived long enough to plan and play a prime role in the National Committee Plenum in New York on December 3-6, 1981.

The FSP, a relatively young party (16 years old) with a predominantly youthful membership of working women, lesbians and gays, people of color, and male feminists, was honored and gratified by Murry Weiss’ adherence to its principles, approval of its practices, and admiration of its composition.

Evolving from a common source in the SWP, Murry and his FSP comrades created exciting and challenging new directions for U.S. Trotskyism.

Political prodigy

The thunderous movement of the ’20s to free Sacco and Vanzetti initiated Weiss into politics at the age of 11.

He joined the Young Pioneers, forerunner of the Young Communist League. But in 1933, he held the view that German Communists should form a united front with the social democrats against Hitler, and for this Trotskyist “deviation” the YCL expelled him.

This was his first testing in the crucible of radical politics.

Undaunted, he toured the country as an “unofficial guest of the railroad companies.” He experienced the poverty and devastation of the Depression, and was enraged at how racism intensified the suffering of Blacks.

A member of the International Left Opposition youth group, he later served on the National Committee of the Young People’s Socialist League until 1938. With other revolutionaries from the Socialist Party, he left to organize the new Socialist Workers Party.

Weiss toiled steadily and creatively for the SWP. The party was the core of his life. Beginning as a branch organizer in Youngstown, Ohio, he later led branches in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. He was a National Committee leader for nearly 25 years, and he edited the Militant and the International Socialist Review during the’ 50s, contributing prolifically to both these SWP publications.

Building the party

Murry’s giant intellect, his genius for politics, his talent for bold and innovative organizing, and his warm, humorous, and expansive personality won him early recognition as an exceptional figure.

He played a vigorous and decisive role in defeating the petty-bourgeois intellectual deserters of the Burnham-Shachtman faction in 1939-1940. And he collaborated with leader James P. Cannon on the historic document for the 1946 party convention, Theses on the American Revolution.

“The decisive battles for the communist future of mankind will be fought in the U.S.,” maintains the Theses. It calls for active intervention into the mass movements by the vanguard party at all times, and Weiss firmly defended that strategy against the faction of liquidationists, Burt Cochran, Mike Bartell, and George Clarke in 1952-53.

In 1957, he toured the country, speaking and writing about the suddenly-possible regroupment of radicals in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956. Weiss’ work resulted in a number of successful united socialist electoral tickets in 1958 and 1960.

Weiss’ status and popularity, and his political closeness to Cannon, were viewed with jaundiced eyes by SWP officials Farrell Dobbs and Tom Kerry. Their bureaucratic, narrow trade unionist mentality, fused with their virulent anti-feminism and bias against theory, led them to oppose the Cannon/Weiss brand of bold interventionism and sensitivity to the special plight and talents of women and minorities.

His split with these misleaders became irrevocable in 1959 when they made an unprincipled bloc with a faction in the Young Socialist Alliance (the SWP youth affiliate) that opposed the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro’s leadership. The SWP was an enthusiastic supporter of the thrilling revolution in Cuba, and this official party policy was defended staunchly by the majority faction of the YSA. But Dobbs-Kerry sacrificed their own YSA co-thinkers in the interests of an organizational/power arrangement with Tim Wohlforth and Jim Robertson of the YSA anti-Cuban group.

Weiss was furious and defended the perplexed and astonished pro-Cuban YSA comrades. The SWP powerbrokers never forgave him.

On to socialist feminism

When Weiss suffered a serious stroke in 1960, the party abandoned him. His wife and longtime co-organizer Myra Tanner Weiss, a national party leader, had to singlehandedly support him financially and nurse him back to health. He learned to speak, read, walk, and think all over again — and being Murry, he made a complete recovery.

Now detached from the party, he continued to meld political theory with practice in his own inimitable style. As a radical therapist, he was honored by being asked to join the New York Feminist Therapy Collective. And he continued to teach the history and lessons of the Russian Revolution, this time at the School for Marxist Education.

In 1975, Murry and Myra Tanner Weiss circulated an international document rebuking the SWP for its support of the social democrats instead of the communist workers in the revolution in Portugal. The Weisses called the SWP Stalinophobic and reformist-oriented.

This document, together with his growing knowledge about the feminist theory and practice of the FSP, were the stimulus for his 1976 trip to Seattle.

In 1980, following a split in the Fourth International, Weiss and two other CRSP leaders attended meetings, as observers, of the Fourth International (International Committee) in Madrid and Paris. This was his first and only European trip, and he contracted Legionnaire’s disease in Paris.

Back in New York in January 1981, he grew desperately ill and was hospitalized in intensive care. He made a miraculous recovery from imminent death and plunged right back into political work, visiting Seattle in August for three weeks of relaxation and consultation with the FSP leadership.

Theory and practice

Weiss drew his practice from theory, and used practice to develop and test theory.

In 1945, he and Myra Tanner Weiss spearheaded the organization of a broad, labor-based united front against fascist Gerald L .K. Smith in Los Angeles. The campaign stirred walkouts in schools and marshalled enormous rank-and-file union support and Jewish involvement. Thousands thronged the street to demonstrate against fascism, and forced Smith to leave the auditorium.

When Weiss toured the country analyzing and denouncing witchhunter Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, he brought with him the wisdom gained from his Los Angeles experience. He exposed the basic anti-union sentiment and policy of both Smith and McCarthy, and called for a Labor Party to smash McCarthy’s incipient fascism.

Not only theory, but a sharp eye for organizational detail, gleams in his tour accounts in the Militant. His reports on the branches abound with enthusiasm over good ideas and habits he encountered — successes in union organizing, fund-raising, distributing leaflets, filling a hall, welcoming strangers, attracting women, youth, and Blacks, recruiting new members, providing childcare.

A consummate organizer, he noticed everything .

Speaking at the Weiss memorial meeting in Seattle on January 23, 1982, Clara Fraser acknowledged the debt that generations of organizers owe him:

He gave us a vision and a concept of what the American revolutionary party should be.

He stood for respect for theory and Marxist scholarship; appreciation of art and culture; active, interventionist, audacious strategy in the mass movements; leadership training for comrades of talent and broad shoulders; democratic debate of disputed issues; theory as a firm guide to practice; a unique grasp of the special needs and energies of the most oppressed — women, people of color, gays.

And he had a great concern with youth — with its ethical idealism, intelligence, humor, knowledge, and its natural yearning for justice, decency and beauty.

At home with revolution

Weiss’ last writings positively shine with his absorption in world affairs and empathy for the workers of the world. Said Clara Fraser:

He had a rapport, an affinity with exploited and oppressed people at home and on the other side of the globe. He didn’t feel strange about them, he didn’t think they were different. He felt for them, he belonged to them, he was them. He always knew for whom the bell tolled … As a communist, a Jew, a professional revolutionary, and a true leader, he could not possibly ever be a passive observer of the horror around him. He identified.

Weiss never stopped studying and explaining the breakup of the Stalinist monolith. In 1956, he wrote and lectured about the Khrushchev revelations on the crimes of Stalin, calling them a ruse to bolster the entrenched Stalinist bureaucracy by apparently conceding to the obvious. And from Hungary to the Moscow-Peking disputes to Poland, his pen was busy heralding the triumphs and tribulations of worker revolts for a socialist democracy.

In 1978, Weiss wrote “Permanent Revolution and Women’s Emancipation,” a profound re-interpretation of revolutionary, Trotskyist feminism.

Referring to women workers in the Russian Revolution, he wrote: “They gauged the moment and acted.” He predicted that the “dynamic of women” will again unleash “an incalculable revolutionary power.”

His prediction materialized the next year in Iran, and Weiss toured the U.S. to speak about the inspiring revolutionary zeal of Iranian women and the contours of that great revolution.

In 1980, he was the only male Marxist to applaud the women of Poland, who exemplified courage and leadership reminiscent of the Russian women radicals.

He always saw the permanent revolution manifested in the Black, feminist, and gay movements. He often spoke of that aspect of the theory of permanent revolution which explained the necessity for revolution to reach every layer of society and confront every social injustice in order to effect living, lasting change. He noted that in the U.S. the mass movements are the precursors of revolution and the multiply-oppressed contingents of these movements are fated to lead it and complete it.

He saw clearly that unless a revolutionary party addressed racism, sexism, and lesbian/gay liberation, it would suffer the same fragmentation, stagnation, and conservatism he had rejected in the white-male dominated left.

Paying homage

Murry’s family, friends, comrades, and former colleagues, and radicals who only knew about him gathered to pay him high tribute at memorial meetings organized by the FSP on January 23 and 24.

In New York City, the New York Times, the Guardian and the Militant ran articles about Murry and announcements of the memorial meeting. 160 people heard theoretician George Novack and Murry’s brother David Weiss, both of the SWP, speak movingly. Former SWPers Hedda Garza, Myra Tanner Weiss, and Nat Simon (Jack Dale) also spoke, as did Carol Munter, a longtime friend and feminist therapist, Steve Zeluck of Workers Power and editor of Against the Current, and representatives of CRSP, Radical Women, and FSP. Musician Connie Crothers performed a piano favorite of Murry’s. Annette Rubinstein, Marxist literary critic and teacher, sent a beautiful message.

In San Francisco, Art Sharon of the SWP, Joyce Schon of the Revolutionary Workers League, and local comrades gave tributes in the FSP’s new headquarters.

In Los Angeles, Jeanne Morgan, Murry’s former secretary who corresponded with him over the years; Fred Halstead, SWP; and Nicholas Kramer of the Revolutionary Workers Front, were among the speakers at an outdoor meeting. A skit depicting Murry’s adventures with high and low cuisine in Paris was presented.

In Portland, FSP comrades were the main speakers. The local SWP refused to participate as speakers or attendees.

Alaskans Phil McMurray, and Sharman Haley of Radical Women, joined former SWP member Carmen Wynn for a half-hour radio broadcast in Juneau featuring tapes of Murry speaking and readings from his works.

Seattle’s commemoration included talks by FSP National Secretary Clara Fraser; Rita Shaw of the SWP; Melba Windoffer, a Trotskyist since the 1930s; and Sam Deaderick of the Freedom Socialist staff. The Bread and Roses Chorus sang revolutionary songs. Joanne Ward, feminist poet, read Nellie Wong’s moving poem, “On Hearing of Murry’s Death. “

In keeping with Murry’s love of good food, each memorial meeting was accompanied by a sumptuous meal.

Telegrams and messages on Murry’s death arrived from all over the country, and from Europe, Latin America, and Australia. These were shared with the audience at each meeting.

There is a widespread audience for Murry’s literary works, and to meet this need, the FSP has established the Murry Weiss Memorial Publications Fund to finance the publishing of the writings which he continued to produce until his final stroke and mercifully quiet death.

Legacy of a leader

Murry died too soon.

He had ambitious plans to write a full autobiography, complete with an in-depth appraisal of the rise and degeneration of the SWP. (His last major literary work was his personal memoirs of Sacco and Vanzetti, published for the first time in this issue of the Freedom Socialist.) Murry also planned to write extensively on his strong belief in Trotskyist regroupment and the regeneration of the Fourth International around revolutionary internationalism, women’s leadership, and a new level of respect for native peoples, people of color, lesbians and gays, national/ethnic minorities, the most exploited layers of the proletariat, and the mass of oppressed allies of the working class.

He foresaw a new relation of forces between world Trotskyism and the communist workers of the world as the Stalinist temples crumble and the revolutionary class struggles for workers democracy, and he planned extensive writing about this.

But he was too much the activist, relisher of life and enjoyer of conversation and vocal polemic to get it all written down, and those tasks devolve upon his political heirs.

The death of Comrade Murry is a blow, a tragedy, and an enormous loss. But just as his example and mentorship motivated and nourished thousands of radicals, his legacy will kindle countless more to achieve the noble goal he set with such verve and gusto for himself, his comrades, and afflicted humankind — the goal of the socialist commonwealth of the world.

From the depths of his ideological, organizational, and psychological wisdom, Murry Weiss sought comrades for whom socialism is inseparable from feminism, and both are inseparable from a vanguard party. He placed himself shoulder to shoulder in our revolutionary ranks, and we shall always admire, appreciate, and love him for it.

Read an excerpt from On Hearing of Murry’s Death by Nellie Wong

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