Sylvia Weinstein’s Fightback
Fightback, A Collection of Socialist Essays, By Sylvia Weinstein, Socialist Viewpoint Publishing, March 2003, ISBN 0-9763570-0-3, 358 pages1
Last April, when Barry Sheppard spoke at a Brecht Forum book event on behalf of his memoir about life in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) titled The Party, he made a telling observation. In his opinion, if there is a new revolutionary party, it will by necessity be a lot different from the party he joined in the 1950s. That SWP had a unique leadership that was made up of working-class intellectuals, most of whom lacked a college education. They were radicalized by the Great Depression and became Marxists. This generation is not only dying off, it will likely never be replicated in future radicalizations since American society has changed so much since the 1930s and 40s.
When I began reading Fightback, a collection of speeches and articles by the late Sylvia Weinstein, Sheppard’s words kept coming back to me since she was a working-class leader par excellence. Although she was bureaucratically expelled from the SWP, her activism continued alongside that of her husband Nat Weinstein and others who tried to keep alive what they thought were the best traditions of American Trotskyism. We are fortunate to have this book at our disposal today. The younger generation, whether moved into radical politics by the Vietnam War or by more recent struggles against globalization, can benefit from her approach to the burning questions of the day. Free from jargon and written in terms understandable by ordinary working people, Weinstein’s essays constitute a “how-to” for making effective socialist leaflets or speeches. When one’s politics emerge from a genuine living engagement with the contradictions of American society as hers do, rather than empty theorizing, they are bound to be more relevant. In many of these essays, she relates personal experience to more general problems of life in class-divided society.
Fightback is woven with recollections about Weinstein’s early childhood, which at times sound like pages from a John Steinbeck novel. In “Living in Poverty Is a Very Personal Thing,” we discover that poverty forced her to go to school barefoot in 1933. What shoes she owned were hand-me-downs and stuffed with cardboard by her grandmother when holes appeared. She reminisces: “If they were a little too tight she poured boiling hot water into them and when the water cooled down we put our feet into the shoes—water and all—and walked around until they stretched. So when I say I had no shoes, I really had no shoes.”
In “‘Grandmaw’ and the Middletown Strike,” written in support of a 1987 strike at Armco in Middletown, Ohio, she summons up her own experience in this working-class city. We learn that Weinstein moved with her family to Middletown in 1935, when she was nine years old. Her father could not find work in his native Kentucky except in tobacco warehouses and at local racetracks where he groomed horses. Landing a job in the furnace at Armco Steel was a step up.
Her step-grandmother worked for the Lorillard Tobacco Company in Middletown and retained vivid memories of working class battles in Kentucky. As a solid believer in trade unionism, she helped organize her fellow tobacco workers. Weinstein recounts the confrontation that took place shortly after she was fired for her efforts:
“As Grandmaw was walking out, she jumped upon a big tobacco basket and told the other workers that she and the four militants had been fired for organizing a union. She explained that everyone else had a choice of staying or walking out, too. The workers walked. There was a long and bitter strike.
“The strikers organized a kitchen near the factory, where all workers and their families could get breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She put me to work washing dishes, cleaning tables, and doing whatever else was needed. They collected food from churches, grocery stores, and from farmers in the surrounding area. No one went hungry during that strike.
“After a long hot summer, the strike ended in complete victory for the union. I remember the ending. The governor had called in the National Guard against the strikers. It was a hot, humid day when they came. The street in front of the tobacco plant was lined with workers and their families. They had the street blocked from wall to wall. I was standing in the front line with Grandmaw and the other leaders of the strike. They were facing open panel trucks loaded with armed National Guardsmen. One of the guardsmen looked down on her and said: ‘You better move these people out, old lady, or we’re going to run right over you.’
“Grandmaw looked him in the eye and said: ‘Young man, I’ve put diapers on people your age. So you just come right on, we’re not moving.’ After about a hour of this standoff, we heard a big cheer from the back of the trucks—the guard was moving out. Grandmaw and her co-workers had won.”
Although some veterans of the 1930s and ’40s anticipated that a new radicalization in the United States would follow the same contours as the last, Weinstein was open to all forms of rebellion and did not impose litmus tests. One of her more remarkable contributions was in the woman’s liberation movement where she was able to communicate working class women’s needs, particularly around the question of abortion rights.
As Weinstein recounts in “If We Are United, We Cannot Lose!”, she got involved with women’s rights in 1958—a full ten years before the second wave of feminism. At that time women could not buy a diaphragm in Massachusetts, a state dominated by the Catholic Church. Since they were legal in Connecticut, women organized themselves into car caravans and drove there from Boston and New York, where Weinstein was based at the time. The Boston cops announced that they would arrest the women and seize the diaphragms! Weinstein writes, “But the women stopped them cold by saying that they would be wearing their diaphragms, and how were the state police going to confiscate them?” The protests resulted in the legalization of diaphragms in Massachusetts.
Weinstein got involved with these struggles not after reading feminist theory but because they related to her own experience as a working class woman. She had two illegal abortions and knew first-hand what this meant:
“When my first daughter was four months old, I discovered, to my surprise, that I was pregnant again. After a lot of hard work, we finally made contact with an abortionist. The charge was $300 dollars, which was like a million dollars to my husband and me. By the time we got the money together, I was three or four months pregnant. I had the abortion in an empty apartment in Staten Island with this man who I did not know—he could have been the Midas Muffler Man, for all I knew—and a woman who stayed with us. It was done on a cold kitchen table. What he did was split the placenta and it took hours before the abortion was over. I spent that time in a movie theater with a woman and man who were waiting for the abortion to take effect. The woman would insist that I go to the bathroom every ten minutes. Actually, they finally drove me home, and it was there that the abortion took effect. Fortunately, my mother packed me in ice when I began to bleed all over the place. I lived through it.”
Another thing one can learn from Weinstein’s essays is the importance of facts. Unlike much of the left press, which relies on rhetoric, she sees the value of a telling statistic. In “Questions for the Grand Jury,” which consists of questions she would have posed to President Clinton at a time when the mass media was hounding him about “whether he diddled Monica Lewinsky or not.” For Weinstein, the important questions are those that affect working peoples’ well-being on a daily basis. She asks:
- Do you know that low-wage workers, working at the minimum wage at 40 hours a week, make $10,700 a year, which is $2900 below the poverty level for a family of three?
- Do you know, Mr. President, that entry-level wages for male high-school graduates fell 28 percent from 1973 to 1997?
- Do you know that Bill Gates’s net worth has jumped 40 percent from a year ago to 51 billion dollars? The average net worth of the top 200 billionaires was $4.7 billion, up from $3.9 billion in 1997?
Weinstein was not focused exclusively on the problems of the American working class. She was a thorough internationalist. There are frequent appeals for Palestinian rights and against apartheid. She is also constantly reminding the reader about alternatives to Third World misery, particularly as embodied in socialist Cuba, which remained a beacon for her from the early days of the revolution.
Always ready to pass on an amusing anecdote from a lifetime of struggle to the reader, Weinstein reveals how she got involved with helping Fidel Castro and his delegation get rooms at the Hotel Theresa in 1961. As a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, she worked with Berta Langston, another party member, to make their stay there as comfortable as possible. This meant keeping the cops and hostile reporters at bay. When she went downstairs to pick up some food and drinks for Castro and company, the flashbulbs went off and reporters pressed her with questions about what was going upstairs. She fended them off with a “No comprendo.” The next day, a New York tabloid’s headline blazed: “One hundred-dollar call girl at Castro reception says that she ‘no comprende.’” She says she “was astounded to be called a one-hundred dollar call girl.” One might add that the newspaper that slandered her was far more guilty of whoring for United States imperialism than this working class militant could ever be.
Sylvia Weinstein died on August 14, 2001, just a month before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For the few years after her death, a kind of despondency settled over much of the left, especially those who had lingering illusions in the Democratic Party. It appeared that the Republican president would be able to impose his will over Iraq, privatize Social Security and secure other reactionary goals. This seemed even more likely when he won a second term, with help from a spineless Democratic Party.
When you read somebody like Sylvia Weinstein, you come away with a determination to keep on fighting, no matter how quixotic it seems. She had a rock-solid conviction that history was on the side of the class she was born into. If she were alive today, she would quite likely be composing some acerbic words on the New Orleans disaster and the complicity of the ruling class in allowing it to take place. As she put it in a 1993 speech given at the University of Maryland:
“I’m an optimist. I have witnessed the magnificent power of workers in struggle for their unions; women who have defended our clinics against the ‘Pro-life’ fanatics; Blacks who have fought and won against the most racist system of Jim Crow; and oppressed people who have the power to fight and the will to win. If we are united and know who the real enemy is, we cannot lose!”
—Swans, September 12, 2005
1 Weinstein, Sylvia: Fightback, A Collection of Socialist Essays, Socialist Viewpoint Publishing, March 2003, ISBN 0-9763570-0-3, 358 pages, $20.00 (paperback)