Nat Weinstein: Memorial and Oral History

Nat Weinstein—An Oral History

In November 2007, Nat Weinstein sat down with Conor Casey, an intern at the Holt Labor Library, to talk about his life as a trade unionist and revolutionary socialist. Nat had a chance to review the transcript once and append his comments, but his political and family commitments and declining health prevented him from further preparing the text for publication. Following his death on May 9, 2014, Socialist Viewpoint now presents Nat’s reflections on his life in order to illuminate the conflicts, intellectual evolution, and moments of both deepest disappointment and sweetest victory in a life of socialist struggle. The version of the text that follows has been lightly edited and reorganized by Sophie Hagen in order to clarify the trajectory and ideas discussed therein. All efforts have been made to preserve both the content and style of Nat’s remarks.

Part I: My Childhood

Nat Weinstein was born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up there.

I lived in a Catholic Irish neighborhood and I learned a lot about the Irish. These kids were all anti-Semitic. I was afraid to tell them that I was Jewish, so I told them my name was Sonny, which is what my mother used to call me. It said “Foley” on my doorbell, so they thought my name was Sonny Foley and I didn’t correct them, because I was sensitive. They’d sometimes come out of parochial school and be mad as hell because they had just learned about the killing of Christ. That happened more than once. I’d see them coming out of school and they’re looking for a Jew! To get their revenge!

So that’s my background. In a way, I’m sorry for telling them what I did, but I was a little coward at the time and I’m ashamed of that. I don’t tell people this story.

I’m telling you because I have to tell the truth, and somebody’s going to record it.

Then, when I was a little older, maybe 11 or so, we’d go out and play games in the street. Mobs of kids in the street. Everything is an apartment house in Brooklyn, pretty much, a tenement house, four family houses, walk-ups—mostly five stories. They were illegal in many cases, but the state doesn’t enforce it. You had to walk up: no elevator.

My mother

My mother immigrated from Russia when she was nine years old in 1910. She went to work in a factory here—a sweatshop—when she was still very young, probably ten or eleven. She was a member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and was a strong union person—not very intellectually interested in trade unionism, but she appreciated the union. At the same time, she had all the faults of workers: She was always complaining about her fellow workers and her chairlady (the union delegate), and the forelady or the foreman, and some of her complaints were legitimate and others were a reflection of the piecework system that prevailed—still prevails, I think—in the garment industry.

They had a minimum salary, and you’d get paid depending on how much you produced. But if they produced too much, the employers would reduce the rates. So they were all watching each other not to produce too much. My mother would hold back her “tickets” and not turn them in. She’d get little tickets for every job she completed: a dozen of this, a dozen of that, and so on, and I remember that when she’d do her arithmetic, she’d always ask me for help with the times tables.

My mother’s father was a trade unionist, a social democrat from Russia, and a painter. Like I’m a painter, too—a coincidence. He died when I was just seven or eight years old. He was a very nice man.

My father

Nat’s father was a prizefighter who went by the name Ruby Stein and had achieved some degree of local fame, so Nat’s birth was announced in the newspapers.

My father’s parents were born in Russia, too. He kept fighting for the money long after he should have stopped, which people had to do. He got pretty badly beat up because he was the kind of a fighter that never gave up, you know? By the time I was six years old, the stock market had collapsed and the Depression had started. My father always had a hard time making a living.

My father’s family, especially, had a middle-class mentality. They weren’t middle class, although my grandfather was a butcher who had a reputation for keeping his thumb on the scales and so he never made a success of his career as a butcher and he retired as soon as he had children old enough. He had a lot of kids; they supported my grandmother and grandfather. He was a petty bourgeois asshole and a hypocrite! He made everybody obey the laws of kosher—no smoking, no lighting a fire on Friday night and Saturday and so on—and he used to sneak around the corner and smoke! But he would forbid anybody from breaking any of the rules. And he was an asshole, and he didn’t like me and I didn’t like him so it worked out fine.

My father knew all kinds of people and he used to walk down the streets and stop every few blocks because somebody would recognize him and say, “Hi, Ruby! How ya doin’?”

On religion

When I was 11 years old, I became an atheist. I asked my grandfather, the bad guy: “If Adam and Eve had Cain and Abel, where did they get their wives?”

He said, “They went to another town.”

These religious people don’t have an answer to that. So I got into lots of arguments, and I got pretty good at presenting my case. Most of the kids hadn’t thought about the things that I thought about, the questions I asked myself and asked my grandfather and so on. So I got pretty good at it and I tended to win every argument.

On reading

I was a reader. That was my main virtue, and it helped me. I learned to read very early, when I was six-and-a-half or seven. I never finished high school. In fact, after the first year of high school I stopped paying attention and started reading books and magazines—science fiction, mostly—in school. They let me do that because I was in a vocational high school and was not a good student. All my teachers told me I was smart, but I didn’t try. I never did homework. I could get by very easily by listening. I like to hear a good teacher talk, and I listened and I absorbed a lot because when you listen and you read you also are thinking. You’re absorbing it, or—what’s the word—digesting. You start digesting as you’re hearing it, as you’re reading it, you see.

I didn’t think I had to study, and that was a big disadvantage for me. I could coast through without studying. What I did do was read the geography and history books all the way through the first day I got them. It took me two or three days to read through the whole history book for the term and the whole geography book for the term. I read them all. It was a story. If it’s a story, I’ll read it.

During boring summers when there were no kids out playing and there was nothing to do, I would spend the summer reading fairy tales and going to the library. There are only so many fairy tales and then you grow older and you don’t want to read fairy tales anymore. That’s when I went to Norse mythology. I found that very interesting. It’s imaginative, it tells me about the world. Norse mythology and Arabic mythology, which was mostly about warriors, as well as great warriors like King Arthur.

Every candy store had a magazine rack. That’s where I found science fiction: magazines like Amazing Stories, Fantastic Stories, Astounding Stories, Unknown. That last one was a unique mixture of magic fantasy and science. I learned a lot about science from reading science fiction. Magazines like Astounding and Amazing Stories always had one factual article in every issue. It was an introduction to science, you see. I became very much oriented to the scientific method, without knowing there was a scientific method. I grew up with it. That takes me to socialism.

Depression-era politics

My whole youth was the Depression: I was six-years-old in 1930. I was politically aware: I used to read the headlines on the newspapers all over New York City. It was in the air. I remember when I was probably around eight-years-old, I was standing outside of the schoolyard at lunchtime with a whole bunch of kids, and we saw a guy running down the street with blood all over him and a bunch of guys running after yelling, “Scab!” They were on strike in a furniture factory in the neighborhood. I found out that one of my older cousins who was about 18 or 19 at the time was working there and he was a “scab.” I said to my aunt after I saw this incident—not thinking anything in terms of criticism of him or anything—“Doesn’t Mendel work there?” She got upset. She thought I was criticizing her. I was eight-years-old; I didn’t know nothing, you know? She started saying, “He has to work! He’s got a family to support!” Defending the fact that he was working. I didn’t ask whether he was working or not. It never occurred to me. I knew he worked there.

Wherever I went, there was a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Roosevelt, in working people’s homes. In Brooklyn, that was the psychology.

Stalinists had a great influence in the working class in those days. There were more pro-social democrats, I would say, than there were pro-communists. They didn’t think in terms of Stalinism; they thought in terms of communists and socialists in those days in Brooklyn.

So one of the things that affected my eventual political orientation was playing out in the streets. We’d play in the streets and there would be older kids, mostly college kids, who were spouting socialistic ideas. I didn’t think of it as socialism. I didn’t understand it. I just knew that they were smart and they said interesting things and that’s about all the impression that it made on me.

So I wasn’t hostile to socialists. I wasn’t pro-socialist, but I wasn’t hostile. If anything, it just seemed like the natural thing, to be a socialist.

Everybody in my generation—all the people I knew—were all pro-union. The radicals and the progressives were for the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] and the conservative workers were for the AFL [American Federation of Labor].

My mother was living with a guy who was a steamfitter and a strong union man, but pro craft union, you see. He was a good, strong union man, but a typical AF of L’er, very much in favor of the unions and of unions, but he kept saying: “The CIO is bad. The AF of L is good.” The CIO was for mass production workers, essentially, and then they proliferated throughout the economy. They were more attentive to the needs of the unemployed and they had an organizational mentality. Build the union, grow, and so on.

In a way, class-consciousness in the 1930s was very high compared to today. But social and political consciousness was not as high in the 1930s as it is today, paradoxically enough and contradictorily enough. Today, for example, capitalism is more unpopular, and you can see it when you’re reading the newspapers where they talk about the “super-rich” and the poor and the pay gap, the income gap—because it’s growing, it’s so wide, and so on—and there’s a subliminal consciousness that is very radical. People are aware of all these things; that’s why they put it in the newspaper. In order to maintain credibility they have to talk about what really exists.

I quit school when I was 15, in June of 1940, and I joined the Army.

Part II: The Military

The Army

I signed up for three years in the Army when I could have signed up for a year because it was just before World War II. I had to get my mother’s signature, lie about my age, and lie about my name. I used my mother’s boyfriend’s name, and made my name “Jonathan Foley.” I kept the “Nathan” in my name. It was a stupid name. But nobody challenged me on it. Maybe because the people from the Army that I was with were mostly from out of New York; they didn’t know too much about Jews and New Yorkers and so on. A lot of them were from the South.

I was assigned to an Army base at Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island. I was in the First Division, which was the “Big Red One,” a sort of famous division. We had Croix de Guerre around our shoulders, which was awarded to the First Division in the First World War by the French government for bravery, or whatever. The First Division went to Africa early on in the war and if I hadn’t gotten out, I’d have been dead. Almost everybody was killed in Africa, all the guys in my company. The captain was killed in Africa. They were among the first to be killed, because they were the first to go.

While I was in the Army, we practiced beach landings. One of the reasons I left was because we went to Puerto Rico and we did combat preparation. We got into boats and circled around the transport ship that took us there and back until everybody was off the ship—the landing boats were little motorboats that held about 20 or 30 soldiers each—and we’d go up onto the beach, we’d jump out, and then we’d go like we were invading and climbing a steep hill. We climbed all day; we started at four or five o’clock in the morning and we didn’t get to the top until it got almost dark, twilight. We were going as if we were attacking, taking cover, and then running—sending a few guys in at a time until the whole squad would go and so on and so forth.

I was in the Army and I got a less than honorable discharge because I told off an officer who asked me embarrassing questions about my mother. I said, “I don’t think it’s any of your business, sir!”

And he said, “Tear up that honorable discharge and give him a blue one.” The blue discharge got me rejected, so it saved me from getting killed in World War II. The chances were high, because I would have gone in ’42.

The Air Force

When I was 18, 19, I was very patriotic. Once I was 18, I went down to the Air Force. It was a separate agency of the government, the Air Force, and I wanted to be a pilot. I passed all the tests until they asked me if I was patriotic, and I said, “I’m not a flag-waver, but I’m patriotic.”

They didn’t like the “flag-waver” and they began asking me a whole lot of other questions. This was a psychological interview that they do, and it’s a routine thing, normally. I guess they were on the lookout for radicals. Maybe it was just a peculiarity of this particular doctor who was interviewing me, because most socialists were pro-war, especially Stalinists and social democrats. They were very patriotic. I was patriotic, I was for my country and I was against the Germans—obviously—and the Japanese—because they had attacked my country. Without being fully conscious of what it told people about me, I picked up the term “flag-waver.” Of course, when I heard the term, and in the context that I heard it, it was a put-down if you were a flag-waver. The term was used by patriots to ridicule people who overdo it. That’s the sense in which I used it. They didn’t take it that way. Probably other things that I said gave away that I was a rebel and didn’t know it.

The Merchant Marines

After being rejected I joined the Merchant Marines—because I was still patriotic, okay? I didn’t want to be “4-F”, which is what they called people who were not in the Army. I wanted to be like my peers, so the next best thing was the Merchant Marines. Besides, it paid better.

I entered the Maritime School at the end of 1943. They had a Maritime School run by the Coast Guard and it was military style but, because of the influence of the seamen’s unions, they also had elections for what amounted to delegates. Like section leaders—sort of in between elections and selection. They had to do it that way because of the power of the unions and especially the Seafarer’s International Union. That was the AF of L seamen’s union. The National Maritime Union was a Stalinist-controlled seamen’s union. The West Coast union was the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, and on the East Coast it was the International Seamen’s Union.

I happened to get on a ship that was an SIU/SUP ship. The SIU, SUP, and NMU objected to the military-style organizational system of the Maritime schools run by the U.S. Coast Guard—what they saw as an attempt to militarize merchant seamen. So they evidently compromised by electing, not delegates, but section leaders.

The only way you could get a job in those days in the SIU or the NMU was a union hiring hall—no other way. Even the government had to hire through it. As a student in the Maritime School, I was put in the government hiring hall, but once I got on the ship, I had to join the SIU. I guess the NMU had to do that, too, to protect itself, because otherwise the government hiring hall would become a rival to the control over hiring.

The first ship I got on was full of ordinary seamen; the only radical was a cook who worked in the galley. He was a Black guy—a member of the Marine Cooks and Stewards’ Union. SIU and SUP had no Black members.

The first time I met these old syndicalists/unionists when I came on board the ship, they sat me down, and they looked at me: No smiles. The first thing they said was, “Get rid of that fuckin’ zoot suit!” They just used that term to show their hostility to it, as a put-down. “Look, get rid of that zoot suit. If we see it on you, we’ll throw you overboard! We fought hard for this union, and you’ve gotta follow those rules that we set—and if you don’t follow the rules, you’re not welcome on this ship.”

Then they told me about what they had to do to get a union. “It wasn’t easy,” they said; “We had to fight and some of us got killed.” That’s the way they introduced me to the union. It was not a friendly exchange; they weren’t conscious radicals. They were Southern—or at least the delegate was. He was a racist Southern worker who was a good union man, strongly in favor of the union. There was a lot of guys like that.

They came to the conclusion that they needed a union. You know, because before the unions they didn’t even have decent food. Now, they have decent food. I’ll tell you, the food was good on the ship. Of course, I don’t mean how it was cooked: That depended on the cooks.

They gave me a contract. Every seaman carried a contract. The contract was simple, not full of legalisms and clauses and semi-contradictory clauses and so on. No one knows what a contract is nowadays. First of all, they rarely see it and they don’t bother to read it because it’s too complicated! The union report only contains an extract, and that’s the most union men see about their contract! That’s why they can smuggle all kinds of things in! They don’t see it. Their wages are higher, they get a raise, and for everything you see the hours are good, or the same hours, or shorter hours, even. You know? Depending on the union and the circumstances and so on. But the seamen had a contract.

The first trip was very important for my education. We went on a voyage that lasted about three-and-a-half months: We went to Iran, the Persian Gulf. That means going through the Suez Canal and that was in 1943 and it was pretty dangerous then, but it was just past the worst period. But we went in a convoy of 200 ships. Along the coast, we had blimps flying overhead and planes coming and of course all kinds of destroyers; other ships.

Near Gibraltar or the first port that we passed, there were all kinds of ships from other countries: Greece, France, and other countries occupied by the Germans. When we came through, all we could hear was cheers; they would all get out on deck and cheer the American ships because it was mostly Stalinists and social democrats on those ships in those days. They were all patriotic. It was a progressive war: a war for freedom against fascism and I bought the whole thing lock, stock, and barrel.

So I saw that and that confirmed my image of America. Then I went through the Suez Canal and expected the same kind of thing. You could see Arabs in traditional Arab robes on the shore—Bedouins, mostly. We never got a friendly response from them; their favorite expression was “Fuck you, Johnny! Fuck you, Johnny!” Or they’d open their robes and wave their penises at you. They hated Americans.

We stopped in the port city in Port Said to take on cargo. We went into the village town and it was very small, no roads: just dirt paths in between buildings. When it was light, everybody was friendly. We had no problem. The merchants were all friendly; they had no reason not to be friendly, but as soon as it got dark, they started throwing stones! Stones were being thrown at us! We couldn’t see anybody—we could never see where it was coming from. People were just throwing stones.

Going through the canal and stopping at Port Said told me something new that I’d never known. I’d always thought everybody loved America. I mean that’s the way we were trained!

So that was part of my education. I went on a ship just like any other person, worker, would be on a ship during the war and I learned something about the world that I didn’t know. I didn’t really think about it consciously, but unconsciously, certainly it was part of me. I knew it. I couldn’t forget those experiences: some people showing their respect and love for America and other people showing me the other side of America, showing their hatred.

I was exposed to some of the ideas of Trotsky on my second trip. We were on a ship bound to the West Indies and we stopped in a number of ports. I think on that trip we stopped in Cuba—this was back in late 1944, or early ’45.

On the ship I happened to read a book by the very famous Trotskyist author James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan. It’s about an Irish kid in Chicago in the 20s or 30s. It made a tremendous impact on me because I had lived in an Irish neighborhood and I knew these kids! I knew how they acted; I knew how they thought and so on. These kids were all anti-Semitic. That was before I met the Trotskyists. He was a Trotskyist, although the book doesn’t talk about his politics, but his frame of mind and how he saw the world. That’s how he told the world that he saw, that he knew, that he understood, that he lived through—which is what a good writer does.

On this ship, I was in an argument about religion and for the first time, there would be occasions where people would be sympathetic to my point of view. I usually was alone in arguing with everybody in the gang that was there. There was one guy listening to the argument and nodding every time I said anything that was of importance—a good argument. Nodding with approval.

We became friends. When a guy thinks that you make a nice argument and agrees with you, he’s an actual friend. So we became very close and we began to talk, and he steered me into a discussion about socialism. He was a very good educator.

This is Eddie Emery, or Robinson. Robinson was his Socialist Workers Party name. He told me about the Russian Revolution and Lenin, Trotsky, and so on—what they did and so on and so forth; all very new to me. It was an interesting story, the way he told it. So full of promise and wonder at the possibility! Then he told me about the Stalinist degeneration, and I was almost heartbroken when I heard this story. The conclusion was that Trotsky was in opposition, he was exiled, and he was assassinated, and that whole beautiful dream came to an end.

I said to him, “You mean it’s all over, and there’s nothing left?” And then he says to me, with a little satisfied smile on his face, he says, “Oh, yes, there is something left.” Then he told me about Trotskyists, the Socialist Workers Party, what it stood for, and gave me all kinds of little pamphlets to read. The first pamphlet I read was “Wall Street’s War, Not Ours” by Art Preis—he was a journalist and an autoworker; participated in the historic Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio—one of the three 1934 industrial strikes [in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco] that set off the great labor upsurge of the 1930s. He wrote Labor’s Giant Step: The First Twenty Years of the CIO: 1936-55.

Everything about the pamphlet appealed to me. It made such an impact on me that I wrote a letter to Sylvia that I mailed in Caracas, Venezuela. I said something along the lines of: “I found it! I found what I’ve been looking for, the thing that makes sense of my life.” She told me afterwards when I came home that she thought I had joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses!

Sylvia and socialism

I explained socialism to her and she was open to it. More open, in a way, than I was because she came from a Kentucky mining background. Her father worked with horses when she was very young, and by the time she was a teenager, he got a job as a chemist in a steel plant in Middletown, Ohio. He was a scab during the strike and Sylvia’s stepmother, his second wife, was a union person—it took her some time to get over his scabbing. Sylvia came to live with him when she was around 13 or 14. Before that she lived with her grandmother in Kentucky. All her mother’s relatives were coal people and were union people.

Sylvia’s step-grandmother was a real militant trade unionist. But Sylvia never said anything to me about unions or anything like that. In other words, she wasn’t that union conscious although that was her background. She was not committed intellectually towards the idea of advancing trade unionism, workers’ rights and so on and so forth, just as I wasn’t before my experiences as a seaman.

After her parents were divorced, her mother moved to Brooklyn. They happened to move a block away from me. I was 14 and standing on the street corner. I see her pass by and I tell you: I saw her and I fell in love with her! She was striking and she was very plain. She had shorts on, I think, and it was summertime, and she was walking with long strides. She was a short woman: About 5 foot 1 inch, or 5 foot. But she was tomboyish when she was young and a very beautiful woman in my estimation.

She was 18 by the time I met her again. I was 19. We went to Maryland to get married, because you didn’t have to take a blood test and wait 48 hours. To my embarrassment; they said I needed my mother’s permission—the law there said men had to be 21 and women 18. When I came back, I wore a uniform because I wanted to show I was taking part in the war. It was just khaki pants, khaki shirt, and an officer’s cap with gold braid on it like I was an officer, which is what the mates on the ship and the engineers on the ship wore during the war if they wanted to show that they were taking part in the war effort. You didn’t have to wear a uniform, but they bought these khaki uniforms and we’d wear them, young people would.

Sylvia never talked about her union background, but she became convinced about socialism, and she was easy to convince—well, it’s partly because of our relationship and partly because that’s the mindset.

Meeting other politicized seamen

I didn’t join immediately, but while we were still sailing, I was introduced by Eddie to some other seamen.

So here I am and I’m getting a lesson in democracy, workers’ democracy. There was a supporter of Albert Goldman and Felix Morrow. That’s one of the leaders of a split that occurred in [the SWP] in 1946. One was a Chinese guy who was educated; came out of school and just was working because he needed a job, but he was an intellectual. He was not a worker, but he was working on the ship along with me. Also Bernie Goodman, who was just a real classic bighearted worker. A real good guy, real good worker, good proletarian revolutionary and Marxist.

I felt like I learned from them. I felt like I was at home with them; I enjoyed their discussions, though I didn’t have much to say because a lot of it was over my head.

But that’s the way it is when you enter a new field and there are others that were there before you. I felt like I was part of something that was better than me.

I was a seaman for only three years: 1943 to ’45. I came back two days after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, after my trip to Venezuela.

Part III: My First Job

Making ends meet after the Merchant Marines

I got this job in a mattress factory after I came out of the Army. I quit that job after a few months. Then I got a job as an office boy. They had me delivering messages and then when they saw that I had no promise for working in an office, they put me in the shop downstairs where they’d fold reams of paper into packages. It was done by hand in those days.

I had to take the subway and it was about an hour to get to work. I counted the hours I had to put in to work, plus an hour for lunch, and an hour commuting each way—it’s eleven hours a day! I had to sleep eight hours; that’s nineteen hours a day! So I got five hours a day to myself. I said, “There’s something wrong with this. This is no good. I don’t want to live like this. Nobody should have to live like this!” I mean, coming off from being a kid and playing in your spare time when you’re not in school or not sleeping, it’s a different thing to become a grown-up and have to make a living.

So as a science fiction fan, I realized that the problem was there were too many days in the week. Instead of seven days with two days off, we should have five days with two days off. I had a scheme for working the calendar so you only worked five or six hours a day. So, in effect, you think about money and hours of work—which is a very important question to working people and for socialism.

The system is wrong. It’s not fair. So I was oriented in that direction. It may have been what I’d learned by accident from socialists or people who were influenced by socialism that I came into contact with—and there were a lot of people influenced by socialism in the Depression.

To be continued.