A Lifetime for Socialism
— Karin Baker and Patrick M. Quinn
MILT ZASLOW, A comrade who devoted his life to socialist activism, died July 8 at the age of 79. He was a founding member of Solidarity, although a generation or two older than most of us. Milt was also associated with Against the Current (first series) from its first issue in 1981.
Milt's history of activism goes back to the thirties. Over the years he was involved in many historic struggles, and with his death we lose someone with a wealth of experience and the insight that comes with it.
We also lose someone with remarkable personal qualities. When speaking of Milt—or "Mike" as many call him, Mike Bartell having been his party name—his friends echo each other in their frank admiration.
"People liked him because he listened." "Tremendous intellect." "Non-dogmatic and humble." "He was effective in helping people understand difficult concepts" and "encouraged open discussion." "Milt had a unique talent for persuading people to take on tasks." As well, "he was handsome," "athletic," "had a wonderful singing voice," and even "was a marvelous poker player."
A Socialist from His YouthThe son of Communist Party members, Milt recalled that his first political work was as a "socialist zionist." During his last year in high school, he joined the Young Communist League.
He became a YCL leader at City College in New York City in the thirties, a time of tumultuous student activism. Milt described City College then as equivalent to Berkeley in the sixties, but with a mostly working-class student body. The YCL ran the campus, with the Young People's Socialist League and a small contingent of Trotskyists also keeping the political consciousness high and debates heated.
Milt took part in almost daily campus demonstrations, and students regularly left campus to participate in mass picket lines in support of local strikers and marches of the unemployed. Occupations of government buildings to protest unemployment often led to arrests.
News of the Moscow Trials and the Spanish Civil War, as well as events closer to home, led Milt to leave the YCL and join up with Trotskyists on campus, one of whom was Hal Draper.
Milt quickly turned his talents to recruiting many YCL members to follow him into what later became the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). In fact, at the urging of Draper, Milt kept his membership in the Trotskyist group a secret for many months, so as to allow him to "bore from within" the YCL, so to speak. When CP leadership became convinced of his unreliability, Milt experienced the first of many expulsions he was to go through over his lifetime (this one rather defensible, given where his loyalties lay).
He was a founding member of the SWP in 1938, but left the SWP in 1940 with other supporters of Max Shachtman to form the Workers Party. He returned to the SWP in 1941, following Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union.
Organizing in the 1940sWhen the job market opened wide up during World War II, Milt moved into an industrial job, as did many socialists. He became a shipyard worker in San Pedro, California—by his own statement the best job he ever had. Milt was fascinated by the variety of tasks he was assigned as an outside machinist, moving from vessel to vessel, and he greatly enjoyed the esprit de corps of the work gangs.
During the years Milt spent at the shipyard, he became a shop steward and member of the union executive board. It was at this time that he met his wife, Edith, who was a militant organizer in the needle trades.
Edith was described by those who knew her work of that era as a heroine of labor who blocked delivery trucks by laying down in alleys with her comrades. (Later she would participate in Filipino farmworker organizing in the Central Valley.) During the thirties she had also run a leftist bookstore with her first husband. It stood near where the Los Angeles main library is today.
In 1944, shortly after the birth of their son Michael, Milt was directed by the SWP to move to Chicago as its new organizer, replacing comrades who had been drafted. He was not happy with the transfer, especially since he was expected to leave so abruptly that Edith and his son had to remain temporarily behind.
Many speak of this time in Chicago as when Milt did his best mass work. Milt would sometimes speak of this time, recounting animatedly about how victory followed victory, in a way that he said is hard to imagine today. As the Chicago organizer, Milt led the local SWP through many struggles, but a few are especially noteworthy.
One was a campaign in the early forties to integrate a Chicago amusement park, appropriately called "White City." Although it was located in the predominantly African-American part of the city, only whites were allowed in certain areas of the park, such as the roller rink. The SWP under Milt's leadership was central in implementing a broad- based campaign that broke the color barrier at White City.
Edith was a central leader in a massive tenants' rights organization that began in the building where Milt, Edith and their son lived. The group pushed for improved living conditions, among other demands. At one time a renters' strike developed that involved thousands in the city of Chicago. The campaign got so big that people in distant neighborhoods were calling them, wanting to get involved.
Milt is especially remembered for the critical role he played in the later forties in the James Hickman case, which was tied in with the tenants organization. Hickman was a young Black man who killed his landlord, who was also Black. Hickman's family had perished in a fire resulting from unsafe conditions in their apartment that the landlord had refused to repair.
Milt's skills in connecting with diverse groups of people allowed him to build a massive defense committee. As a result, Hickman was found not guilty and the housing system itself was put on trial. According to Leon DesPres, former Chicago alderman, "but for Mike, James Hickman would have been convicted."
Democracy and Socialist RegroupmentMilt returned to New York City and became the SWP branch organizer. As a national leader of the SWP, he ran as mayor for New York City. In 1954, however, he was expelled from the party as a member of the "Cochran tendency." Along with Bert Cochran, George Clarke and Harry Braverman, he was one of the central leaders. He sometimes referred to himself as one of the most expelled U.S. socialists.
Issues involved in the expulsion included the tendency's advocacy of more flexible trade union policies and positive relations with the periphery of the New York CP. However, from Milt's descriptions of the extreme centralization in the SWP and the majority's unquestioning agreement with everything its leader, Cannon, advocated, it's clear that Milt's persistence in thinking independently would eventually have led to a break.
The expelled tendency began publishing a superb magazine called American Socialist. Unfortunately, Milt did not find Cochran any less controlling than Cannon, and eventually broke with him as well.
Milt developed a very critical attitude about the SWP's lack of internal democracy, which he believed went back to the party's early years. He also realized that in his own leadership role he had unthinkingly worked from this model, and concluded that he would function differently if he had it to do again.
Difficult Times in the FiftiesMilt and Edith returned to the Los Angeles area. With the shipyard now closed and having no formal qualifications for work, they had to come up with a means of financial support. Eventually they began a business selling greeting cards and small gifts to local stores. They did fairly well in this line of work, although they didn't enjoy the business world and retired from it as soon as they had saved enough money.
When speaking of this period, many in Los Angeles refer to memorable study groups organized by Milt. Often focusing on Marxist and Trotskyist theory, Milt was known for his ability to "clarify any issue." Participants especially valued the comfortable atmosphere of open discussion that Milt encouraged, an experience that was not generally found in socialist study groups.
Milt's practice of encouraging socialists with different viewpoints to come together in open discussion was another reflection of his early advocacy of socialist regroupment. He worked toward this goal at least as far back as the fifties.
For example, when the American Forum for Socialist Education held a symposium on socialist regroupment, Milt chaired two sessions: Socialism After Stalin, with speakers William Mandel and George Clarke; and Left Wing Policy in the 1956 Elections, with Clifford McAvoy, Albert Blumberg and David Dellinger as speakers. These sessions were, incidentally, addressed in investigations by the FBI into activities deemed "threatening to internal security."
The Tumultuous SixtiesMilt and Edith became very involved in the Friends of the Panthers, a committee that supported the Black Panthers. Milt played an important role as liaison between the Panthers and the white leftist community. Black Panther members visited their home so often that they became targets for anti-Panther hostility and were eventually forced to move.
Edith was prominent at this time in an organization known as Food Conspiracy. The group purchased food in bulk and donations were collected. The food was then made available to people with low incomes.
During the 1960s Milt was very active in Los Angeles as a leader of the movement against the Vietnam War. He also assembled a dynamic, vibrant group, the Socialist Union, which fused with the Internationalist Tendency, a group of about 160 socialists who were expelled from the SWP in 1974.
Socialist Union also worked closely with the early Chicano movement. They often provided security for the Brown Berets at their functions. When Milt was involved in the leadership of an anti-Vietnam war march, and at a time when Chicano organizing was just beginning, he helped to persuade the leadership to allow the Chicano contingent to lead the march. As they walked through the Mexican-American area, the community joined in the march. It was the largest Los Angeles antiwar march, turning out 350,000.
When a third-party movement began to develop in 1968, as an outgrowth of the antiwar movement, Milt and Edith were involved in California's Peace and Freedom Party. They participated in the group's founding,. Their focus as socialists was not to support candidates but to bring forward issues and discussion from a left perspective.
The Eighties and NinetiesFor the last twenty years of her life, the defense of Geronimo Pratt was a burning issue for Edith, and a focus for Milt. Pratt was a Black Panther from L.A. who was framed and convicted of murder. Edith died without enjoying the triumph of Pratt's freedom, and some believe Milt held on as long as he did because he hoped to hear of Geronimo's release.
Milt and Edith were extremely proud of their son, Mike, and adored their two granddaughters. Mike is a successful actor who has worked in many productions—including "Fiddler on the Roof"—and was, until recently, a central character in the soap opera "Guiding Light." Edith was once delighted with a reviewer's comment that Mike's character, Roger, was a "delicious villain."
Mike was able to arrange celebrity support for Geronimo Pratt through his television connections. Sadly, he is not presently acting due to an illness.
Edith died several years ago of an aneurysm. Milt was treating her to Mother's Day dinner, and in her last conscious moment she was sitting in the restaurant with a drink in one hand and a rose in the other. She was a vital, energetic person and politically active until the end.
Through his last days in the hospital Milt kept his political consciousness. He was very moved to hear about the release of Geronimo Pratt.
Many who knew Milt spoke of his wonderful voice and the memorable occasions when he led groups in song. Milt kept this up even in the hospital, where nurses reported he sang "Solidarity Forever," accompanied by the retired trade unionist in the bed next to him. On July 8 Milton died from pancreatic cancer.
Fighting SpiritsAlthough their health and energy had declined, one incident reflects how Milton and Edith Zaslow's fighting spirit never flagged. When the Spike Lee movie "Malcolm X" came out, Edith and Milt attended a showing with several friends. As people began walking out of the theater Edith rushed to the exit to leaflet the moviegoers with information about Geronimo Pratt's case.
The following night Edith and Milt returned and were informed by security that they couldn't leaflet. Milt told the guards that they knew their rights and they weren't going to stop. When security threatened to call in police, Milt and Edith told them to "bring them on." The elderly couple were subsequently arrested and handcuffed, to the horror of the crowd that had gathered.
Milt recounted this story with obvious pleasure, and Edith commented: "It was wonderful! Just like old times!"
A memorial fund in Milt and Edith Zaslow's honor is being established. For further information, contact ATC.
Karin Baker is a member of Solidarity in San Diego and an activist in a bisexual political action group BiPol. She was a friend of Milt and Edith Zaslow. Patrick Quinn is a member of Solidarity in Chicago. Along with Milt Zaslow, he was a supporter of the Internationalist Tendency. The authors would like to thank Frank Fried, Leo Frumkin, Pauline Furth, Hugo Rasmussen, Walta & Marshall Ross, Judy Shane, John & Pearl von Leuwen, Gene Warren, Ron Warren, Stan Weir and Suzi Weissman for their help.
ATC 71, November-December 1997