Saturday, June 18, 2016

A socialist life (2010)

Book Review from the December 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Role-modeling Socialist Behavior: The Life and Letters of Isaac Rab, Karla Doris 490 pages.

This book is a worthy account of the life and works of one of America’s unsung working class heroes, Isaac Rabinowich, commonly known as Rab. Through the medium of his granddaughter’s personal account of Rab’s family life, it is particularly valuable to be able to view a Socialist such as Rab as a real person, tolerant and enlightened, not just a faceless propagandist. Well illustrated, this is a useful and thought-provoking book, carried out in a charmingly eccentric style.

The story of Rab is, in a sense, the story of real Socialism in America. Rab was born on 22 December 1893 in Boston, the old home of American ‘freedom’. His parents, Sheppie and Sarah, had recently arrived from the shetetls of eastern Europe but were literate and engaging, attributes which Rab inherited in spades. Rab also inherited his father’s socialist background, joining the Socialist Party of America at the age of sixteen. Despite his humble origins, Rab excelled academically and was accepted for Harvard. However, wanting to be a real worker rather than an academic drone, he headed instead to an agricultural college in Ohio. A chance flood destroyed his practical project and exhausted his financial resources, so, in the summer of 1915, he headed to Detroit, where a well-placed class mate acquired him a job at the Ford’s factory. Via the Detroit local of the SPA, he soon came into contact with Adolph Kohn and Moses Baritz, two SPGBers fleeing the effects of the First World War. The encounter was to change his life. Kohn and Baritz won Rab over to Marxism, to which he would dedicate the rest of his life.

On 7 July 1916, Rab and 42 other attendees of Kohn-Baritz classes established the Workers’ Socialist Party of the United States, along the lines of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Faced with political repression, the group was to be short-lived and in 1919 was reconstituted as a social club known as the Detroit Socialist Education Society. Shortly after Rab was sacked by Ford for his political activities and moved with his wife and young family back to Boston.

The 1920s were difficult both politically and personally for Rab and it was not until the end of the decade that things began to move again. On a national level, comrades in New York began to issue a journal, The Socialist, Rab being one of the foremost contributors. Shortly thereafter, on 12 September 1930, the Workers’ Socialist Party was re-formed, with Rab a member of first Executive Committee. In Boston, Rab helped form a Socialist Education Society which in 1931 became the Boston local. It was around this time that Rab became friends with Anton Pannekoek, astronomer and Marxist theoretician, who stayed with Rab during trips to America. Rab was also on good personal terms with the council communist Paul Mattick.

In 1939, editorship of The Western Socialist, previously a journal of the Socialist Party of Canada, was moved to Boston because of fears that the paper might be suppressed due to the outbreak of the Second World War, it becoming a joint publication with the WSPUS. The following year, national headquarters was moved to Boston too. Boston remained the centre of WSPUS activity in North America for the next forty years.

Boston local continued its extensive social and political programme into the ‘40s, which were, perhaps, the golden age of the WSPUS. In 1947, confusion with the Socialist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyist organisation, caused the WSPUS to be renamed the World Socialist Party, a significant development which has spread throughout what is now known as the World Socialist Movement.

The 1950s, as in this country, were a period of rapid and steep decline for real Socialism. The WSPUS was dogged at this time by controversies over the ballot and violence. Rab and the Socialist stalwarts, however, carried on with same enthusiasm.

Better times came in the 1960s, with the revival of radical politics with the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements and the opening up of new media for propaganda activities. The US Party was particularly enthusiastic in its use of radio programmes.

Rab remained throughout his life an active trade unionist, latterly as a member of the International Typographical Workers Union. He died in 1986.

Details on how to obtain a copy, write: WSPUS, P.O. Box  440247, Boston, MA  02144, USA or email

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