Remembering Archie Lieberman

— David Finkel

BY THE TIME I first met Archie Lieberman, in a small branch of the International Socialists in New Jersey in 1970, he was already a thirty-year veteran of revolutionary and union struggles. Archie was an authentic rank-and-file leader and, as he remained to the end, an unreconstructed Bolshevik in the Left Opposition and Third Camp traditions.

When we spoke by phone in recent years, frequently right after Archie had finished reading the most recent Solidarity pamphlet or internal discussion bulletin, he always came back to the same message he delivered in our first meeting: A socialist organization with a middle-class or student membership had to get itself rooted in the working class, or it would never become relevant.

Trotsky had insisted on this point -- into the factories, to the workers -- when Archie had just joined the movement, right out of City College of New York, and it always remained for him the central political question.

“It used to be said that one worker-socialist was worth at least 100 (student) members,” Archie wrote in memory of his friend and comrade Rube Singer. “Today we would have to increase their worth.” (“Rube Singer Remembered,” Against the Current 25, March-April 1990)

It was sad to learn that Archie had died this past April 30, 2002. Unlike some of our other wonderful departed comrades, such as Sol Dollinger or Stan Weir, Archie unfortunately never turned to the writing of history or memoirs.

For Archie, “life was fighting for workers -- period,” says his son Ernie. “You probably wouldn't have the time or inclination to write large works unless you are exiled, and Archie wasn't ever exiled.”

While Archie did edit the insurgents' newspaper at Singer Sewing Machine (see below), wrote leaflets and contributed to socialist internal bulletins, his own history was never properly chronicled, and I am aware only of parts of it.

Archie was born Aharon (Aaron) Lieberman on October 4, 1916, becoming “Archie” when school officials couldn't figure out how to pronounce the Hebrew name. Radicalized in the 1930s, in his teens he was drawn toward the Communist Party, until he concluded that the CP's anti-imperialism was not genuine, and then joined the Trotskyist movement.

When the Socialist Workers Party split in 1940, although Archie sympathized with the minority (“Shachtmanite”) view regarding the Soviet Union and the war, he remained with the SWP majority because of its stronger working-class membership.

Subsequently he was a member of the “Goldman-Morrow tendency” that left the SWP and joined the Workers Party at the end of World War II. Remaining with the WP and its successor group, the Independent Socialist League, up to the ISL's dissolution in 1958, Archie subsequently affiliated with socialist groupings as circumstances permitted -- the Socialist Party, International Socialists, Democratic Socialists of America and in recent years a formal sympathizer of Solidarity.

Archie was no slouch when it came to arguing theory or political analysis. His real genius, however, showed itself as an organizer and rank-and-file leader. He was passionate about the importance of the ability to lead masses of workers, whether in strikes or revolutions (which is why he remained a passionate supporter of the Bolshevik politics of Lenin and Trotsky) -- although he cared nothing about formal union positions, and rarely held any.

In 1941, then with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Archie co-led a wildcat strike at Maidenform in Bayonne, NJ, where he met his wife Betty, whom Archie described to me as “a real Genora Johnson” organizing women picketers in battles with cops.

The strikers' demands were won, with the price being that Archie had to leave. ILGWU President David Dubinsky was later quoted as saying it was the best job of organizing he had ever seen. For twenty years afterward the ILGWU tried to recruit Archie as an organizer -- which he refused because he felt working for the bureaucracy would compromise the way he fought for workers.

The Struggle at Singer

A shipworker during World War II, Archie in the postwar years was with the Independent Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) and a leading militant in a 20,000-worker strike at Singer Sewing Machine, an experience he recalled as a high point of WP-ISL union influence. In this struggle, the ISL was part of a group of workers embroiled in bitter inner-union factional warfare with the Communist Party, which at that time was the leadership of the United Electrical Workers (UE).

If there was one dispute in the left that agitated Archie more than any other, it was any suggestion that “the Stalinists” (the leadership of the Communist Party) had ever, at any time, been the authentic “left wing” of the labor movement, the Black struggle or anything else.

His position on this issue had no room for nuance -- over and over he would insist that the CP had been “the worst strikebreakers” during the war, the most corrupt agents of imperialism, and had poisoned the reputation of socialism among workers by promoting the totalitarian USSR.

The following summary is based on a letter from Ernie Lieberman, recalling Archie's own account of those years.

The UE's strength was in the Northeast, especially at Singer, with its worldwide distribution of pedal-powered and electrical sewing machines. Singer's heart was in the Elizabeth, NJ plant with 20,000 workers and dated back to the late 19th century.

The CP controlled this plant, especially its foundry of 500 African-American workers, many of them recently from the South, whose votes enabled the CP to control the plant, Singer, and with it the UE. Archie later recalled those Black workers as having the same huge abilities as Martin Luther King, or later sports superstars like Reggie Jackson.

It was in that foundry, where molten or white-metal was shaped into machine parts, that Archie got a job. “He often told me how he would ask to see a worker's paycheck, go into the boss's office, and come back with more money,” says Ernie Lieberman.

“This was not `sweetheart' payoff money, as the CP charged. The worker (oftentimes illiterate as a result of the South's education system) had been paid less than the contract provided -- cheated by the CP/UE in cahoots with Singer. Doing this many times and with his hard work alongside them, Archie won those workers' respect and broke the CP's hold on them.”

At the same time, Archie participated in the strategy sessions of those union organizers opposing the CP, and wrote and edited their news<->paper. This struggle culminated with a strike in the Elizabeth plant and a large split from the UE to join the rival IUE.*

This struggle also broke Archie's health, forcing him into the hospital with rheumatic fever in June 1952 and out of industrial work for many years. He was also blacklisted by employers. Having to leave the Singer struggle was something he would always regret.

Continuing the Struggle

From the early 1960s till his retirement due to illness in 1976, Archie was able to return to industry as an ironworker in Elizabeth, NJ, where he negotiated contracts without holding a union office -- and without having to strike.

Archie and Betty weren't through yet: In the 1970s, when in his sixties, Archie led a countywide tenants' strike in Farmington, NJ. Meanwhile, before and after his disability retirement, Archie had kept occupied by volunteering as a high school track coach and organizing neighborhood excursions to baseball games.

One of Archie's prominent comrades during the WP-ISL years, Herman Benson, remembered Archie as “an absolutely wonderful guy and inveterate rank and filer. Where we had differences, or shadings of opinion, regarding our orientation toward the Reuther current in the labor movement -- whether to be a part of it or more of an independent opposition -- Archie was on the rank-and-file independent end of that spectrum.”

Archie recounted to me that he had been dismayed as the Shachtman leadership moved toward the labor bureaucracy and away from a rank-and-file orientation. He was never sure that he had made the right choice in turning down an offer to become a director for the organization's industrial fractions.

Perhaps the only other group beside the Stalinists that I heard Archie describe with such venom was the medical profession. He fought his last battle virtually by himself, perhaps too much so, after Betty suffered an incapacitating stroke.

When the doctors told him there was nothing to be done -- and no insurance would pay for aggressive therapy -- Archie deployed all his experience as a union steward, a political militant and track coach to confront the medical bureaucracy and personally take on Betty's physical rehabilitation.

He reported some victories, but in the final year his voice indicated that he was wearing down. Archie and Betty remained in their Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania home until two days before Archie's own passing.

For Archie, theory mattered but the point of the struggle was not all that complicated. Every victory, every wage increase or working condition won, gave working people a chance to live a little better with a little more dignity -- a little bit more like the full human beings we could all be able to become with the ultimate revolutionary victory of socialism.

Note

Some of Archie Lieberman's views on the history of U.S. labor and the left were presented in ATC 57 “The Lessons of Working Class History” (July-August 1995, 42-43) and a subsequent exchange with Michael Funke in ATC 59 (November-December 1995, 42-43).

ATC 103, March-April 2003