Gabe Gabrielsky: A radical affirmation

Promise Li

December 1, 2020

(Photo: Sydney Ghazarian)

Gabe Gabrielsky was one of my earliest and most important political mentors. In fact, my first-ever meeting with a political organization was in Gabe’s flat in Highland Park in the summer of 2015. As a college student newly exposed to Marxism in my studies, what struck me first about Gabe was not only his firm conviction in the movement in which he was embedded for his whole life, but also his dedication to emphasizing every new socialist’s independence of mind. He spoke dynamically about his politics — the importance of workers’ self-activity and thinking and creating mass democratic, socialist organizations.

But he also said to me that young socialists always tend to fall in line with the first organization they encounter, and that actually it’s best for us to shop around, to learn about each and think for ourselves. It was this sense of principled openness of mind that drew me not only to Solidarity, which would become my first political home, but also socialism. Little did I know then that this sentiment is very much not the case with most smaller left formations in the U.S.

In a sense, how Gabe treated me as a new socialist captures a fundamental aspect of his politics that I hold dear to this day: socialists must take the question of what it means to build democratic working-class organizations seriously. We must always look to building and organizing mass movements and organizations, with clear democratic processes and without coercion. As a staunch anti-authoritarian, informed by his “third camp socialist” or “independent socialist” background, and perhaps also by his dealings with colorful characters from 1970s New York bohemians to radical Quakers, Gabe stressed that we do not base our politics on leaders, states, or party dogma.

I quickly inclined to Gabe’s ideas of “socialism from below,” guided by the everyday self-activity of workers, not the hagiographies of “Communist” states, especially as I’m someone who grew up in Hong Kong — a city whose identity and way of life have been shaped by Communists with a big “C” appropriating colonial and capitalist paradigms.

He often lamented that young socialists are more enraptured by the Russian Revolution than American working-class history. He was always more interested in talking about how we can learn from the Minneapolis teamsters’ strikes in the 1930s, or the organizational pitfalls that wracked the SDS, than Lenin’s exploits. And above all, he emphasized learning about the history of socialist and mass organizations; why it was important to recognize and remember individuals like Hal Draper, Max Shachtman, and Stan Weir, and organizations from the Independent Socialist Clubs ([later the International Socialists) to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

Many of these distinct traditions ultimately have important pitfalls, but I am inspired by him to believe that they are nonetheless invaluable products of rigorous political conversations about what a socialist future can look like, and how we should get there. Many of the people who he looked up to were “blue-collar intellectuals” — Draper, Stan Weir, Mike Parker. Gabe rejected both Marxist arm-chair academic philosophizing and an anti-intellectual dismissal of rigorous political and theoretical thinking.

The key for Gabe was to study carefully and remember the tangled sectarian splits in socialist history, neither to simply reproduce them nor reject all ideological conflicts within an organization, but to understand why certain principles are worth fighting for and how certain struggles can either build or destroy promising organizations.

I remember the intensity with which Gabe treated everything I said that was factually incorrect or that he disagreed with — when I forgot which year the Shachtmanites rejoined the Socialist Party, or when I expressed too much sympathy to some “actually existing socialist states.” “Fuck all states,” he once exclaimed, slamming the table in agitation when I once tried to defend the Soviet Union and Cuba.

In a way, Gabe was the opposite of a sectarian. When I met him, he and other local Solidarity members like the late Gene Warren were actively building a number of organizations: Socialist Party USA, Solidarity, (later) DSA, the Eastside Greens, etc. In line with his maverick streak, he had an instinctive distaste for democratic centralist formations — something I have indeed inherited. For him, it was important to maintain an open attitude to the ecosystem of social movements and organizations while staunchly holding fast to one’s basic principles, and remembering those who have held those same ones in the past. Gabe saw early on that DSA had the potential to become a genuine mass socialist organization on the eve of Trump’s victory, and did not hesitate to call for others to help him build it.

Gabe understood that his firm allegiance to the “third camp socialist” tradition should not preclude him from the messy landscape of unions, coalitions, and organizations. And furthermore, he demonstrated his politics with his life: he practiced “the rank-and-file strategy” that Solidarity holds as a core value from workplace to workplace.

He worked in the Delclo Battery plant in Central Jersey (not far from where I live now incidentally) as he helped lead the local IS branch and organized with young militant workers in the local UAW union. He helped organize one of the longest strikes Atlantic City’s casino industry has seen in 2007, not as a union staffer or non-profit worker, but as a rank-and-file worker and shop steward of UNITE HERE’s Local 54.

Of course, that is not to say Gabe and I did not have disagreements. But Gabe always encouraged political debate, for people to vigorously think with and against each other: this is the unruly, yet crucial, practice of socialist democracy, for people and organizations to determine their road to liberation through collective intellectual work, just as we ought to live in a world where we should be able to democratically determine our own material conditions with one another.

For one, Whiteness is an issue with which I don’t think Gabe ever fully grappled in his political practice — nor does Solidarity or the “third camp” tradition. This is not to say that this tradition of political thought has never amounted to much for socialists of color. On the contrary, one can point to James Baldwin’s friendship with Weir and his brief flirtation with the Young People’s Socialist League (also Gabe’s first socialist organization).

Its values also live on in Labor Notes and “the rank-and-file strategy” — influencing important multi-ethnic labor struggles in recent years from the teachers’ strikes in Chicago and West Virginia to the “New Directions” rank-and-file caucus in New York City’s Transport Workers Union Local 100.

Though Gabe’s socialist tradition never amounted to its own “brand” of mass organization, its radically anti-authoritarian and democratic spirit enabled me to understand the complexities of the immigrant experience and my home city without giving in to the Third Worldist paradigms that are often uncritically rehashed by leftists. Especially among diasporic Asian American radicals, there is an easy tendency to base one’s politics on the simple rejection of the American identity and nostalgic recovery of “the homeland,” to neglect class solidarity in favor of a politics based on a dangerous valorization of regimes that are “socialist” in name only.

Don’t get me wrong: the U.S. is an illegitimate, settler-colonial state built on the backs of Black and Indigenous peoples. But Gabe’s politics has always reminded me about Baldwin’s nuanced sentiment on the country that alienated him: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

I remember Gabe recalling the history of Chinese American workers who once waved the American flag in solidarity with white workers during an action. For someone who had almost never traveled outside of the U.S. at all, his subtle perspective on the American identity, neither an uncritical left-chauvinism nor an ultra-left rejection of multi-ethnic class solidarity, always productively intrigued me. As Barbara Smith recently reminded us in a tweet, black feminist formations like the Combahee River Collective were important because they “dealt with class oppression as well as gender, sexuality and race” — not in spite of it.

Gabe’s politics never quite gave me a coherent theory on race politics, but did he need to? Gabe, quite representative of many of my mentors and comrades in Solidarity, empowered and trusted me to think for myself, to bring and adapt independent socialist values to my own milieus.

My earliest political education was listening to Gabe’s fiery ramblings over pupusas and coffee for many Saturdays at a mom-and-pop Salvadorean restaurant in East L.A., and his long, attentive, and consistent email replies to all the large to minor questions I have had about socialism. Being able to be critical about the political tradition that he insisted I remember is perhaps the best testimony I can give to Gabe’s character and politics. He was someone who never hesitated to challenge me, and always someone who forcefully reminded me to own up to my political stances, even if they differed from his own.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he lived his life to the fullest. As I write this in the “dark winter” of a pandemic, watching my hometown’s mass movement being snuffed out by state repression, I sometimes forget how to live my life well outside of politics. Then I remember that what Gabe and his comrades fought for is a world of joy and spontaneity — something he demonstrated in his vibrant life — hanging around the bohemian and jazz scenes in 1970s Lower Manhattan.

Even far-left politics — for all its failures, fractions, and gloom — was full of life for Gabe. The last time I saw him in person, I encouraged him to mind his health and suggested that he can slow down his political work a bit. He quickly retorted: “Why should I?” His last time at a public event was at a Bernie event, and the last email he sent to me and his comrades asked for conversation and banter about any of his interests — jazz, politics, movies, and etc — anything but his declining health. This was not a denial of existential finitude, but a radical affirmation of the vigors of life.

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