Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Issac Rabinowich and the World Socialist Party of the United States (2006)

This year marks the ninetieth anniversary of the formation of the World Socialist Party of the United States, companion party of the World Socialist Movement in the United States. Printed below is a biographical article on one of its founding members, Issac Rab, which I've reproduced because I think it provides an interesting commentary on the history of radical politics in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, and also because I hope it goes some way in shedding light on the marxian socialist tradition in the United States.

90 Years On

The Party now known as the World Socialist Party of the United States was formed, in Detroit, in July 1916. Probably its most enthusiastic founder-member was Isaac Rabinowich, generally called Rab for short. His granddaughter and long time member of the WSP, Karla Rab Ellenbogen, has just written and published Role-Modeling Socialist Behavior: A Biography of Isaac Rab, which also contains a selection of Rab's letters and articles, as well as a report on his visit to Britain in 1954 and a tape-recorded address to the SPGB. annual conference in 1959.

Rab's parents, Sheppie and Sara Rabinowich, came from Navaradok in Minsk-Gobernia, on the Russian-Polish border. Sheppie's father and grandfathers for many generations had been rabbis; and Sheppie also studied to be a rabbi, but then decided that it was irrational to believe in a god. He gave up being a rabbi, and became a lay teacher. In August 1893, Sheppie and Sara, who was already pregnant, arrived in Boston in the United States, and on December 22 had a son whom they named Isaac.

Sara was, even before emigrating to America, the pioneer revolutionary socialist in the family. Almost immediately after arriving in the United States, Sheppie joined the Socialist Labor Party, and then with its formation, the reformist Socialist Party of America. He later became a charter member of the Communist Party, although neither Sara nor their son fell for Bolshevism. In 1909 at the age of 16, Isaac Rab joined the Socialist Party of America, and served as the Boston Locals secretary until he left in 1912.

In 1915, Rab moved to Detroit, Michigan, and as soon as he arrived joined the Detroit Local of the SPA. Detroit was a boom town with auto plants attracting workers not only from other areas of the USA, but also from Canada and Great Britain. Among them at that time were members of the Socialist Party of Canada and of Great Britain, including Tom Bolt, Bill Davenport, Adolph Kohn and Moses Baritz. As elsewhere, the reformers in the Detroit Local of the SPA predominated, but the revolutionary minority drew encouragement from the new reinforcements and socialist literature, as well as the International Socialist Review published by Charles H. Kerr & Co.

Rab soon heard about a Marxist study class conducted by Moses Baritz and Adolph Kohn in Duffield Hall. He immediately joined. And soon after rejected the majority reformism of the SPA. Rab also met, and became friendly with John Keracher, the Michigan State Secretary of the SPA, who originally came from Scotland. Karla Rab Ellenbogen relates that, in April 1916, at a lecture in Duffield Hall with a friend, Bob Reynolds, Rab "couldn't pull his eyes away" from the girl taking the collection a little way down the aisle from them. It was love at first sight. Her name was Ella Riebe. Rab was introduced to her.. "I'm going to marry that girl," Rab told Reynolds. And on September 27, 1916, Ella and Isaac were married.

The revolutionists within the Michigan SPA felt that a new political party was needed, in the words of the SPGB declaration of principles, "determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist...". Keracher largely agreed, but with Dennis Batt decided to remain in the 5PA for the time being. On July 7, 1916, however, 43 members of the Duffield Hall study group, including Rab and 18 other members of the Detroit Local, formed the Socialist Party of the United States. They included Bill Davenport, who became the first secretary, Lawrence Beardsley, George Ramsay, Walter Green and Bill Gribble, the first organizer (although not mentioned by Karla, Gribble had been an active member of the Socialist Party of Canada). Ella joined later. Shortly after, the Socialist Party of America challenged the new partys right to use the name, and Workers Socialist Party was substituted. The WSP adopted the object and declaration of principles of the SPGB. On August 11, 1917, Ella gave birth to a boy who was named Willie.

Following the Bolshevik coup d'├ętat in Russia, writes Karla Rab Ellenbogen, "the socialists in the new Workers Socialist Party were sneered at for their failure to recognize a socialist revolution when it took place". And she adds: "To their credit, the WSP comrades saw that there was no conscious, political majority of convinced socialists in Russia; any revolution there could only lead to the establishment of a capitalist government."

Faced with a hostile political climate, of government repression against "reds", anarchists, radicals and socialists, the WSP membership had to make a hard decision. Without changing its principles, it decided in 1919 to abandon the structure of a political party, and re-group as the Detroit Socialist Education Society, generally referred to as the SES. In 1921 it changed its name again to the Marxian Club. In April, 1920, Ella Rab gave birth to another baby, whom they named Anna Hope. Rab, who was working for Ford, was warned that he was not to propagate socialist ideas in the factory, and was then blacklisted. In the same year, the family moved back to Boston.

In Boston, there were no members of the socialist movement. So, in the words of Karla, "Rab had resumed the task begun in Detroit, his lifelong work of spreading knowledge and understanding of the case for socialism, almost as soon as he got back to Boston." He was a charismatic speaker and soon drew large audiences wherever he spoke. Meanwhile, an active socialist group, the Socialist Educational Society, had been formed in New York, comprising former members of the SPGB and SPC, as well as others such as Sam Orner, the taxi driver immortalised by Clifford Odets in the play Waiting for Lefty.

In 1927, Rab and Ella, and their two children, marched in the funeral parade for Sacco and Vanzetti, the two anarchists executed by the state "for a murder of which they were patently innocent", writes Karla Rab Ellenbogen in her biography of her grandfather. (Charlie Lestor was also there - PEN).

Shortly after, Rab took charge of the Vagabonds, an athletic club which, in the words of Karla, "played a role in the growth of the socialist movement in Boston that no one could have anticipated". The Vagabonds was not just an athletics club, but encouraged discussions of science, history, anthropology and, under Rab's influence, socialism. Some members of the Vagabonds formed a Science Club, a number of whom became active in the socialist movement in Boston. In 1929, Rab and a number of his comrades were able to form a Socialist Study Class which moved into International Hall, which, incidentally, was also the headquarters of the local Communist Party. With increasing activities in Boston, New York and Detroit, the members of the various classes, clubs and groups voted to once again become the Workers' Socialist Party of the United States. Rab continued to soapbox at various locations in Boston. And by 1931, he was joined by a well-known, top-notch local tennis player by the name of George Gloss. As Karla notes, George Gloss was to play a major role in the history and development of the WSP.

In November, 1933, the Boston Local of the WSP had just 12 members. By 1939, it had around a 100. The Local moved into the WSP headquarters at 12 Hayward Place; and members spoke regularly on Boston Common. In 1940, Karla was born to Rab's daughter Anna and a young socialist, Lenny Feinzig. At the beginning of the Second World War, the WSP issued its anti-war manifesto, calling on the workers to establish socialism, and "put a speedy end to the profit system that breeds wars...". Unfortunately they did not.

In 1946, the Boston Local was forced to move to another headquarters at 27 Dock Square. This put quite a strain on the membership. Karla's grandmother, Ella, was the Locals secretary at the time. Rab was the National Organizer. In 1946-1947, there were at least a 100 active socialists in Boston. It was at this time that the Workers Socialist Party decided that it must change its name, largely because of the confusion caused by a Trotskyist group calling itself the Socialist Workers Party. Although many members of the WSP were reluctant to give up the old name, a majority, in a referendum voted for the party to be called the World Socialist Party of the United States. Rab said in later years that it had been a fortuitous choice, as it emphasized the international nature of the socialist movement.

By the 1950s, the WSP began to lose some of its often most active members. There were a number of controversies. Karla comments: "The material conditions were simply not conducive to a general desire for social change as they had been during the Depression. The American working-class were disinterested in socialism during the post-war years. McCarthyism was on the rise. It was a discouraging time for socialists." The National Office was moved from Boston to Detroit in 1950. The McCarthy witch hunts made it particularly difficult for not just "Communists", but also socialists and the WSP. Nevertheless, a much smaller party carried on. In September, 1954, Rab and George Gloss visited the United Kingdom. Indeed, this writer met Rab and heard him and George Gloss speak to a large and attentive audience one sunny Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park.

By the early 1970s, Isaac Rab began to age, although he continued to be active in the party. In December, 1975, there was, writes Karla, a huge celebration for Rab's 80th birthday. Hundreds of people came. Ella Rab died in 1979. And Rab began to suffer from Alzheimers disease. He died on December 31, 1986. The World Socialist Party, of course, carried on. In fact, "Eventually, members in other parts of the country who had thought the WSP was no more, found the party again", notes Karla Rab Ellenbogen. The World Socialist Party continues the struggle, 90 years on.
Peter E. Newell

Further information on the WSPUS and its history are available at the following links:
World Socialist Party of the United States MySpace Page
A Brief History of the WSPUS (dating from 1966 on its 50th anniversary)

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