U.S. Politics and the Economy

Joe Johnson ¡Presente!

November 7, 1930—August 5, 2015

By Brian Schwartz

Joe Johnson died on August 5th, 2015. He was raised in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. When Joe turned 20, the United States invaded Korea. Joe understood the Imperialist nature of this war from reading what Marxist literature was available in Chippewa Falls. Joe fled to Canada, to avoid being drafted into this reactionary war. Joe knocked around Canada working until he was recruited into the Toronto Branch of the Socialist Education League in 1956. He served with distinction and soon became a leader in this small Trotskyist organization aligned with the Fourth International.

During 1958, the Socialist Education League ran a slate of candidates in the Toronto municipal elections. After elections, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police paid a visit to Joe for a “papers check.” Joe’s draft number had come up. The comrades advised Joe to go back to the U.S. and face the charges. In Minneapolis, Joe was sentenced to two years in prison for draft evasion and a $500 fine. Joe never gave into demoralization. He told Canadian comrade, Ernest Tate, that he used the time in prison to have political discussions with his fellow prisoners.

Surviving prison, Joe was going to face deportation back to Canada. The U.S. ruling class alleged that he had sworn allegiance to the crown and was therefore a “stateless person.” The Socialist Workers Party organized a successful defense campaign for Joe to remain in the United States where he was born, and won. Joe joined the SWP, helping to recruit members on college campuses and among advanced workers who were open to the ideas of revolutionary socialism. It was no small feat to bring the battered SWP through the McCarthy witch-hunts so that it could give crucial help and publicity to the Civil Rights Movement, and help provide leadership to the Vietnam Anti-War and Women’s Liberation movements. Throughout these years, Joe had the privilege of working and living with Vince Dunn, whose own revolutionary experience went back to the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) and the great Minneapolis Teamster Strikes of the 1930s.

Working as a reporter for the Militant during the Wounded Knee uprising, Joe was welcomed into the blockaded town because the American Indian Movement (AIM) activists trusted Joe and the Socialist Workers Party.

Beginning in the 1970s, Joe resided again in Chippewa Falls running a bookstore in Eau Claire, then opening one up in Chippewa Falls. Joe maintained what connections he could to the SWP. His life continued on with his passions for guitar playing and chess. For 15 years he took care of his mother Amelia, and deeply mourned her death. He read extensively about Chinese culture and philosophy, and took good care of his beloved cats.

Joe was living a happy bachelor’s life when he became disabled and moved into Wissota Regional Health and Vent Center. Although confined to a wheelchair, Joe could be found at the computer studying current events, playing chess, and writing his contributions to Socialist Viewpoint. He contributed articles and opinion pieces to this magazine until his death at age 84 from liver cancer. He enjoyed visitors and discussing the capitalist crisis of the day and how people could mobilize to defend themselves. Personal letters he wrote to both of the editors of the magazine were filled with his passionate ideas for how workers could confront the terrible challenges of living under capitalist rule. He advised the editors to take an active role in proposing solutions to the relentless assaults on the working class. He often expressed the opinion that the prisoners in the American incarceration Gulag would rise up against their terrible oppression at the hands of the state.

Joe ascribed to the Transitional Program that encouraged workers and their leaders to fight for issues and win even though their class-consciousness and revolutionary vision lagged behind. When Detroit went bankrupt, Joe clearly saw this as an opportunity for Detroit citizens to organize into their own defense councils, preventing bankers from taking them to the cleaners with taxation and other austerity scams. Joe was fond of saying, “You fight the capitalist class where they are the weakest!” The Occupy Wall Street movement, Kshama Sawant’s election to Seattle City Council, the Black Lives Matter movement and environmental movements, were confirmation in Joe’s mind, that the teachings of Marxism and class struggle are validated from 1917 until this year 2015.

Not being ready to die, Joe elected to gamble with chemotherapy after his cancer diagnoses. Joe’s mind was powerful and there was much left for him to write and observe; new opportunities for social upheaval to witness and participate in. There were his friends along with many games of chess and discussion waiting for his attention. The chemotherapy gamble didn’t pay off with an extension of life. Joe was left no choice but to succumb to death. He left us with his Marxist articles, observations, and a convincing assurance that he lived a full and good life organizing the working class and their allies toward building a peaceful and prosperous planet for the future generations of humanity.

As Joe signed his letters,

—In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and the Spirit of Ché. If we struggle we will win!

(See Joe’s last two letters to Socialist Viewpoint in the Letters to the Editors section of this issue.)