MIA: History: ETOL: Documents: International Communist League/Spartacists—Fraser
Memorial Meeting for
Richard S. Fraser
8 January 1989
Source: Prometheus Research Library, New York.
Transcription/Markup/Proofing: John Heckman, Prometheus Research Library.
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2006/Prometheus Research Library. You can freely copy, display and otherwise distribute this work. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive & Prometheus Research Library as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & editors above.
On 8 January 1989 the Spartacist League held a memorial meeting in Los Angeles to honor the life and work of Richard S. Fraser. Some 85 people came out to pay tribute to Fraser, from old comrades and friends going back over 50 years when Dick joined the Trotskyist movement to a younger generation which included many members of the Spartacist League. Also present was his son Jonny, whom Dick cherished.
A beautiful display of photographs and other materials illustrating Dick’s life was assembled by comrades from the West Coast, many of whom had worked with and cared for Dick during his last years as he courageously fought many painful and debilitating illnesses to carry on his life’s work. The speeches and messages to the memorial meeting were as rich and diverse as the man they remembered.
The International Communist League is fortunate to be the heir to an unbroken revolutionary tradition which goes back to Lenin and Trotsky’s Communist International. Dick Fraser was an important part of that continuity and it is in this spirit that we are reprinting in full the speeches and messages to his memorial meeting, originally serialized in Workers Vanguard Nos. 469-471 (20 January, 3 February and 17 February 1989).
Los Angeles Spartacist League
We’re here today to honor the life of Richard Fraser. Dick joined the Trotskyist movement at the age of 21 in 1934 and was an active participant in the socialist movement until his death on November 27, 1988. The attendance here today I think is a testimony to his deep and lasting friendships as well as the political impact he had on his own and on younger generations. We’ll have seven speakers as well as twelve messages from comrades and friends who couldn’t attend today. After that we will conclude with the singing of the Internationale. Now you’re all welcome to stay following that. The bar will be open and you can look at all the displays that have been done. We’ll also be playing music that Dick particularly liked. Included in this is some music that was written, orchestrated and played by Dick’s son Jonny who is here today. Dick’s love for his son was very great. Even after eleven hours of surgery the mention of Jonny’s name would light up his eyes, and he was very proud of his music.
reading statement of the Bay Area Labor Black League for Social Defense
We in the Labor Black League for Social Defense salute Richard S. Fraser, historic American Trotskyist, who died today, 27 November 1988. Richard Fraser was our teacher, the author of “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question” that lights the road to black freedom through the program of revolutionary integration, the assimilation of black people into an egalitarian socialist society.
Richard Fraser, the theoretician, was above all an organizer and a tireless fighter for freedom for black Americans and all the working people. His courageous struggle in his later years to overcome his many painful illnesses in order to complete his historic work on the black question is only one recent example of his exemplary tenacity.
Comrade Fraser rejoiced in and endorsed our victorious labor/black mobilizations that stopped cold the Ku Klux Klan’s intended provocations in Washington, D.C. on November 27, 1982 and our recent satisfying victory against these fascists on November 5, 1988 in Philadelphia. The labor/black mobilizations are in life the verification of Richard Fraser’s historic contribution to history: for revolutionary integrationism as the road to the emancipation of the American proletariat—white and black—as opposed to the dead end of black nationalism. From its inception the Spartacist League’s adaption of Richard Fraser’s program of revolutionary integrationism has been the cornerstone of Spartacist’s program of black liberation through socialist revolution. Our organization, the Labor Black League for Social Defense, grew out of the SL’s successful November 27, 1982 mobilization that stopped the KKK.
We honor our friend and teacher Richard Fraser most of all by continuing his fight. Forward to the Third American Revolution to Finish the Civil War! Hail Richard S. Fraser, fighter for black freedom!
who knew Dick Fraser for 55 years and was Los Angeles organizer of the Communist League of America when Dick joined
I am here in two capacities. From the Los Angeles Socialist Party I bring condolences to the family, friends and comrades of Dick Fraser. But I’m also here in a personal capacity, for the ties that link Dick Fraser and me go back more than a half century. On counting back it was about 55 years ago that I first met Dick in San Diego. We were obviously considerably younger then. Together we studied the fundamentals of internationalist socialism, the class struggle and its final outcome in socialism. We pondered over the sources of surplus value, class exploitation and its termination in a socialist society of abundance for all with production for use not profit.
We analyzed the cruelty and the absurdity of unemployment, of want and suffering in the midst of plenty. This was in the very depths of the Depression. We probed the economic and political roots of war and imperialism, and how to eradicate them and establish an economic order internationally where the antagonism between classes vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.
We learned and we were also active. We fought against fascism in demonstrations. We battled in discussion with individual members of the Communist Party and its supporters against Stalinism and for the internationalist essential of socialism as against the monstrosity of the theory of “socialism in one country.” And he, we, responded “present” with enthusiasm on picket lines, as volunteers in supporting union efforts, in backing the movements of the unemployed and the oppressed segments of our society for human rights.
Dick had a constant and loved companion—his fiddle. He was a sensitive musician, a talented and devoted violinist. For it is well to remember that we, young people, many of us in our teens, brought into the socialist movement music and literature. We had choral groups and we heard recitals at our socials. We formed drama groups and Dick among others gave much here.
There was a kindliness and generosity in Dick that surmounted even the bitterness of the factionalism that marked the socialist movement and that asserted itself, despite the torturous pain he was suffering. And this kindliness and generosity, as so often happens, called forth kindliness and generosity in turn in those he touched, whether briefly or for long periods of time. There is guidance in this thought. Dick in his integrity, his giving of himself without stint in the daily work for socialism, his respect for clarity and knowledge in the realm of thought, his artistry, his magnanimity, was a forerunner of the person of the human future of associated labor in which the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all.
As I visited him in the last months of his life, and these visits were harrowing for he was very sick, I bear witness that he remained true to the ideals and goals and values he consciously adopted 55 and more years ago. The thoughts of youth were for him long, long thoughts. With all the setbacks of the intervening years and with all the pain of his illnesses, Dick stood fast as an internationalist socialist to the very last day of his life. This memory he left us and it is precious.
Myra Tanner Weiss
former longtime member of the Socialist Workers Party sent the following greetings
Dick Fraser lived his whole life as a socialist. However important the differences we had between us, we shared the desire for a socialist society and Dick struggled always to organize the working class and to raise its political consciousness. My special sympathy for our loss goes to those of you who not only lost a comrade but a close political collaborator and friend as well. He can never be replaced in your hearts. Dick was always certain of the socialist victory for which he devoted his life. And so are we. In revolutionary solidarity.
member of Socialist Action who first met Dick Fraser in the SWP in Minneapolis in 1938
I was listening to a tape recording this morning of the history of the IWW. Now Dick was never a member of the IWW. But if you knew Dick Fraser you knew that his roots were in the IWW. What do I mean by that? I mean, Dick may not have had a penny in his pocket, but he might have heard that there was a contact a hundred miles away. And Dick knew how to go the cheapest way—thumb or railroad.
One of the comrades I talked to, Asher Harer, who was recruited by Dick, said they had a peace demonstration where Asher went to school, and who showed up but Dick Fraser. And when he showed up, Asher said, “Do you have any money?” “Hmm, yes,” he said, “I have five dollars.” Now he had to go about 150 miles, but he heard that there was a peace demonstration and there might be a possibility of a recruit. So wherever there was a possibility of recruiting, wherever there was a possibility of participating in a strike, wherever there was a problem in the working class you could expect Dick to be there.
Now I lived in Minneapolis. I went to the university during the great strikes. And we were sitting around with Max Geldman—unfortunately this has been a period where we’ve lost a number of the comrades that have had 50 years in the movement or more. A good part of that generation—I’m glad I’m a lot younger—but a good part of that generation has left us. But we were sitting around the table, Max Geldman had just come from the convention in ’38, which was the founding of the Socialist Workers Party. He was much wealthier—he took a bus or a train, I don’t remember. And about three or four days later, in came Dick. A knock at the door and this man with a gentle face, as he’s been described by Charlie, 5 10" or 5 11", I guess, came in. And I said, “Well, how did you get here?” He said, “a very cheap form of transportation.” I asked him what it was and he said, “Well, I found that the boxcar and the thumb were one way you can get almost anywhere in the country.” That was Dick Fraser.
I didn’t meet Dick again—although I heard that he had become a seaman, he was a seaman for about four years—until I came to Los Angeles. I had heard from Asher the story that Charlie told you, about the fact that Dick had been a violinist, that he was with the San Diego symphony orchestra for a period of time. People wanted him to go on to study with leading musicians. But once he had seen the vision, the socialist vision, once he had seen the idea of internationalism, of an independent working class, of a type of party that was necessary to make a revolution in this country, Dick put away his violin and joined the socialist movement.
And in Los Angeles, the thing that I remember about Dick is that there was no task that Dick wouldn’t do. I was telling Karen when I talked to her that if the office had to be cleaned up, Dick would clean it up. If there was a strike to go to, Dick would go and provide whatever leadership. If there was a struggle, any type of struggle of the working class, you could depend on Dick to be there.
And that was one of the reasons that I wanted to speak. Because in this tradition of a number of comrades that have left us—I must tell you that I talked this morning to a woman who was one of the leading comrades on the East Coast and she said, “What have we achieved? We’ve had Dick and Max [Shachtman] and [James] Cannon and all these people. Where are we now?” And I smiled to myself as I said to her on the phone: Where was the working class in 1917? Where is the working class of the world today? Where is the capitalist class today? It’s in a blind alley. These comrades left us with a great and a historic tradition and we will link up with the revolutionaries of England, France, of Africa, Latin America.
Yes, great were the contributions that these comrades made and we will live to see younger comrades coming in, taking up the cudgels and becoming part of that fight. And you young comrades who are not part of the movement yet, you must take up where Dick and many of the others left off and carry this struggle on. Because there is no question, there is a socialist vision and there is a socialist movement. And if you believe in the socialist vision, you must become a part of that socialist movement. Thank you.
Dorothy Ray Healey
of the Democratic Socialists of America sent the following statement dated 28 December 1988
I don’t remember what year it was when I met Dick Fraser. I do remember, however, how it came about and what we discussed. He phoned, said he listened to my radio program on KPFK, was a former member of the S.W.P. and suggested we get together for a visit. Both of us were amazed at how much the S.W.P. and the C.P. resembled one another in their organizational methodology even as each was proclaiming the other as a chief opponent. When I told him how Les Evans, then a member of the S.W.P. had told me of his being present at Jim Cannon’s home watching the TV news report of the 1962 California elections and how Cannon exulted in Pat Brown’s defeat of Richard Nixon for governor, Dick commented that way down deep many Trotskyists did recognize that there was a difference between Republicans and Democrats. He said that in 1939 when Cannon and other leading Trotskyists visited Trotsky in Mexico, they discussed electoral policy with him and asked what the position should be if an Afro-American was running as a Democrat. According to Dick, Trotsky replied: “We support the men not the party.”
Dick’s pamphlet, “An Open Letter to American Trotskyists” is one of the few examples I know of where a critical and self-critical analysis of past policies was made public. It was no surprise to anyone who knew of Dick’s focus on a proper policy for Marxists toward the “national question” for his pamphlet to attack the racism involved in the S.W.P.’s policy in the 1930’s toward Harry Lundberg, head of the Sailors Union of the Pacific.
He joined the New American Movement and was active within it until his illness curtailed his mobility. But each time I visited him at the hospital or his home I was impressed by his willpower and his determination to overcome his physical ailments and the mental clarity with which he surveyed the world.
I am grateful to all of you for the solicitude and care you gave him until the day he died.
a longtime union activist in the Tidewater area of Virginia and a friend of Dick’s sent the following message dated 28 December 1988
Today I went to the public library and looked in the Books in Print titled “Authors,” and searched for Richard S. Fraser. Dick’s name wasn’t there and I felt a little bad about this; but then I had a very good feeling that in the near future his name will be listed with the “Authors” with the completion of his book titled, “The Struggle Against Slavery in the United States.”
Some time ago, around the end of November I received a call from a friend that said Fraser passed away in his sleep 27 November 1988, the same day the Spartacist League and friends stopped the Klan in 1982.
I met Dick in 1985 and had a couple of talks with him concerning a book that he was in the process of writing. At the time, the title of the book was “The Rise and Fall of the Slave Power,” but was changed in June 1986, because a Senator Wilson used the same name about a century ago.
In our conversation, Dick told me that I would be surprised how many black people do not know the complete truth about slavery in the United States. Dick said, “My book will be written for scholars, teachers, students and for anybody who wants to read the book.”
Fraser sent me to my history book when he said, “After the election of Thomas Jefferson as president and he (Jefferson) made the Louisiana Purchase, everything went along smooth for the slave holders.” Jefferson’s presidency (1801-1809) was the beginning of the now Democratic Party.
Thomas Jefferson being president of the United States (his occupation listed as a planter) and a big slaveholder was a founder of the now “friend of labor” Democratic Party. This is why the workforce, black and white, should break away from the Democrats, for a party started by wrong people cannot be changed. You destroy this wrong party and build a new party free of slaveholding policies.
Dick Fraser sent me a copy of his writings entitled, “Two Lectures on Black Liberation,” which was delivered in 1953 at the Militant Labor Forum at Los Angeles. One of the subtitles is, “The Negro Struggle, Capitalist Politics and the Labor Movement.” Enclosed are five sentences from the above:
1. “But it must be remembered that if it was the Democratic Party which created the semi-fascist southern system, it was the Republican Party which voluntarily turned the South over to the Klan.”
Dick was talking about the Compromise of 1877, when arrangements were made between Southern Democrats and Republicans to give the 1876 presidential election to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes (loser in the popular vote), in exchange for withdrawal of federal troops from the South.
2. “The Democrats, it is true, are the main upholders of white supremacy.”
With this coming from Dick over 30 years ago, why are labor and black leaders still today trying to tie the workforce with the Democratic Party? To preserve white supremacy and maintain segregation among the workforce.
3. “Votes don’t determine or control anything of great importance in the South.”
This is true because the working people have never obtained anything at the voting polls except another politician to mess up things some more.
4. “Without the overthrow of prejudice unionism itself is always in danger.”
This reminds me of November 27, 1982 when the Spartacist League along with unionists from the East Coast stopped the Klan from marching in Washington, D.C. The very first workday on the job, fake local union heads tried to bring the stoppers of the KKK up on charges of inciting a riot. A Klan sympathizer is the same as a Klansman.
5. “The low wages of the South are a constant pressure upon all unions throughout the country.”
The capitalist uses the South to set the standards as far as prices are concerned. Cheap labor can always be found in the South for the Northern factories.
While looking through my files, I came across a note-type letter that was never mailed to Dick Fraser: To Dick Fraser: You said, “Discrimination and prejudice in the rest of the United States derives directly from the southern system, feeds upon it, and like racial discrimination throughout the world is completely dependent upon it.” In another paragraph you said, “But since discrimination in the North and West derives from the southern system, it will never be eliminated until the southern system is uprooted and destroyed.”
My comment to Dick: I like this, Dick. This is important to remember for everybody who is against discrimination and prejudice. If you want to destroy the two (discrimination and prejudice), you start at the source, the beginning. Go to the South Land, the origin of the hell fire.
Dick told me he joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1934. With the decay of the SWP, and the actions of Dick’s last performances prove that he is the same Trotskyist in 1988 as 1934.
The worthwhile people die too quick.
reading statement from the Freedom Socialist Party National Committee
The Freedom Socialist Party extends its sympathy to Jon Fraser and to the comrades and friends of Dick Fraser gathered here today.
Dick made a lasting contribution to our movement and to the Black liberation struggle through his collaboration with Dave Dreiser, Clara Fraser and others in originating and developing the Revolutionary Integration position. Dick spoke brilliantly on Revolutionary Integration, many times from the pulpits of Black churches. And his grasp of history, economics, and politics was widely admired. He is remembered for his scholarly talks on a host of issues, his energetic organizing, and his stinging barbs at the bourgeoisie.
Fraser’s profound Marxist analysis in Revolutionary Integration is destined to become one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of U.S. radicals. It has already left an indelible mark on our organization, helping to shape it into a multi-racial party with deep respect for the materialist roots of the vanguard role of Blacks in the fight for socialism.
The FSP parted ways with Dick in a serious, bitter and well-known struggle over women’s rights. Still, we pay respect to him today for his positive contributions to the movement as writer, speaker, teacher, historian and leader who never relinquished his socialist goal. His long life encompassed a host of jobs and talents. In the ’30s he supported himself in Seattle by selling The Militant on Skid Road; he later became a merchant seaman, a carpenter, and a plastics technician. He was a violinist and a gourmet chef. And he devoted his life to Trotskyist politics. As the son of a railroad worker, he was always a highly class conscious worker and unionist. He never finished high school but became a consummate worker-intellectual; his agile mind soaked up ideology like a sponge.
He left us two chief legacies: theoretical work which guides our daily practice, and his jazz musician son Jon who is creating the music of a new and better society in the belly of the old one. And we salute this unique legacy, this incendiary mixture of jazz, Black history and revolutionary socialist theory!
Charles Du Bois
a friend and comrade of Dick’s since 1974
This is very beautiful here. I find these things out about Dick that I never suspected. He was not a braggart, obviously. I first heard about Dick Fraser through reading “The Materialist Conception of the Negro Question.” I was about 18 years old, this is back in ’71. I was impressed with the document, and it had a profound impact on my development and understanding of American politics and especially the black question, since I had come from being a black nationalist, Maoist, kind of.
So I was in awe of his name, you know, Richard Kirk [Fraser]—well, who is this guy, he’s pretty good. Of course, I didn’t know that about a year and a half later we’d be sharing the same couch. I was on the couch first, I was staying at Ted and Gayle Fagin’s house, and I was sleeping on the couch, and he needed a place. He had seniority, so he got the couch and I got the floor. So I finally said, this is Dick Fraser and, legends don’t quite fit the mental image or expectations—I came from this Maoist background and they have these bigger-than-life leaders, you know, Lenin’s got bulging arms and stuff—this is Dick Fraser, wow. But he was “bad.” Size don’t count.
When I met him, he was on some kind of rebound. He was not one to talk about a lot of his problems, and I wasn’t the kind of person to get nosy with something somebody didn’t want to talk about. But since I had met him, I guess sometime around ’72 or ’73, he was on some kind of rebound. I guess it was some years later where he actually ended up soliciting me for a place to stay, but it was a privilege that I was able to help him out. Myself and the Spartacist League and all people in the socialist movement are indebted to this man for his contribution.
What we were doing, while I was a member of the Spartacist League, was collaborating with him on doing archival research into the SWP work in the ’40s. See, he never mentioned a lot of this stuff that he had written before—we were going into the ’40s, so he pointed us in the right direction, but he didn’t tell us. Of course, he had a hard time speaking, too, so I guess he had to save his words. But I was very surprised to see a lot of this stuff and hear all these stories. I mean, I never knew all this stuff about Dick.
But one thing I could not understand at the time was that he was giving us all this information and helping us out, pointing us in the right direction, and telling us stories, like how the SWP looked and what it was doing, or how it lost its members, how it gained them, what the organization in Detroit looked like as far as he could recall. But he was in NAM [New American Movement], and you know, this was a political opponent, an organizational opponent. See, I didn’t have it then, you know—political opponents, organizational opponents, I didn’t quite get the differentiation, you see. And it was painful for him to talk, but he was giving us all this stuff, and I couldn’t figure it out. Well, I got it figured out now.
He really cared for revolutionists, and people that wanted clarity and respected history and wanted to study. And that above all was what the man was about. He wanted to teach. And your organizational affiliation wasn’t necessarily the thing that was going to color what he did and how he did it. The man was very, very generous. I knew that, and hearing these people that knew the man, really knew the man, yes.
So we have a great loss here, a great loss with Dick Fraser. But when I reread the “Materialist Conception” after I met him, I had read it before and I always read it again, but it’s kind of funny reading it now, because you read his polemical barbs and I know how he looks, or how he looked, and could sort of see the twinkle in his eye like he’s kind of saying this stuff. It’s kind of fun to read, yeah, Dick.
I don’t know what emotional cost he had to pay in terms of the constant rebounds he was having to make, politically, personally and then in terms of his health. But the man, he never quit. And I’m just very glad to say that he was able to witness the impact of what his contribution actually has meant, in terms of the mobilizations that have stopped the Klan. That he was able to witness that and see that what he stood for was not just a good idea and he’s pretty sure he’s right, but he knew he was right, and that the last act that he did do, the last political act [endorsing the November 5 Mobilization that stopped the KKK in Philadelphia], this is very gratifying that he was able to see that carried out.
And what I can say is that Dick Fraser did not surrender to the bourgeoisie or bourgeois ideology. People have said it, he died a communist. And we owe a lot to Dick Fraser, we’re gonna miss him.
a Spartacist comrade who sent the following message, dated 30 November 1988
Dear Comrades and friends,
I am sending this letter to share a few thoughts on my impression of Richard Fraser. I was privileged to help take care of him while I was still living in Los Angeles. Looking back at this I can see that I was carrying out an important duty as a young communist in assisting Richard. For me being with Dick was my chance to have a real link with a socialist from the old revolutionary SWP. A generation of militants that I would only know through the program and the written word they left behind. Although most of the time I spent with Dick was involved with basic survival tasks for him, a few telling facets of this man stood out.
First and foremost Dick was a tenacious man. The medical battle he waged not only against his condition but also against the wretched world of doctors and hospitals would daunt anyone. Dick kept on fighting and at the same time kept an ironic slant on all this. Dick could tell you the most horrible things that happened to him and have you laughing and crying at the same time. It was a bittersweet task to take care of Dick.
That Dick was able to continue contributing politically was a real testament to his history as an organizer and leader in the SWP. Where I mainly saw this was how he would continually overcome the latest adversity to strike him so as to be able to keep on following world events and most importantly write down his thoughts. The most important possessions he had were his books, his television and his typewriter.
The other thing that sticks in my mind is how Richard’s eyes would light up when he mentioned two other things important to him. These were his son and music. Richard’s voice would get that tone of pride when he mentioned his son. And one nice memory that will stay with me was when we were able to take Dick to a concert of the L.A. Philharmonic.
Dick was a charming man who had wards of nurses of numerous hospitals in the greater Los Angeles area caring for him as their favorite patient. The only patient I had ever seen who had a typewriter in his room.
I end this by saying that I will always be proud for having been a part of helping Dick in his later years and always a little sad that I didn’t know and learn more from him.
a Spartacist comrade, sent the following contribution
Dick, in spite of being in bad health during the last years, and when I helped care for him in Los Angeles, was always willing to draw on his own array of political experience to help us with our work. (In hindsight, he laughed at some of them.)
I remember in particular the good advice he gave me at the first national SL conference after he found out that I was doing work among black workers in the South. He told me that in addition to having a revolutionary program, because of the history of segregation, it would be necessary to find ways of achieving social interaction with my black coworkers. He suggested that if necessary, join clubs or associations where one could establish these kind of relationships, but that I would have to find out how to do it in my own way. It was good advice on his part, as we have learned from doing communist work among the black working class in the Deep South.
This example is probably a small thing by itself, but the total of Dick’s work, in particular his work on the black question, is a valuable contribution to Trotskyism.
Message from the Chicago Spartacist League, Spartacus Youth Club and Chicago Labor Black Struggle League
Long service and tenacity as a partisan of the working class and oppressed demand the greatest admiration and respect from we who come after. His contribution to be realized in the struggle for black liberation and proletarian power that will be the American socialist revolution.
a longtime comrade of Dick’s who collaborated with him for over 20 years in the Seattle branch of the Socialist Workers Party and the Freedom Socialist Party, and as editor of Revolutionary Age
We’ve got all these young people up here today. I’d like to thank you for the invitation to speak here, and particularly I want to thank those of you who took care of Dick in these last years, and made his last years so productive and as pleasant as possible.
When I was asked to speak, I was kind of pleased with the idea that I would finally get a chance to get even with all those people who ignored Dick over all the years, you know. And I worked out a wonderful talk that I was going to give down here. I was going to go through the whole history of his ideas and present them to you here. And talk a little about the way he worked with others and confronted with others, to talk a little bit about the way I and Clara Fraser and the Seattle branch worked together with him in developing his ideas. Then after all that I was told that I should try to keep it to ten minutes. So you don’t know how lucky you all are here today.
No, I’m not really going to talk too much about the contents of his writings, because those are all available. We’ve printed them out, particularly in two publications which I edited, in the Revolutionary Age, in the work “Revolutionary Integration,” and “Crisis and Leadership,” which were the major works we published.
I’d rather talk a little bit on the way Dick worked, that is how he managed to enrich his own ideas and to test them in the class struggle, and to help others develop their own thinking and their own understanding. Dick, as you know, and as has been described here to you, was never what you’d call an ivory tower radical. He was a constant activist. But he used all the material on hand, both in the form of data and the knowledge and experience of others in developing his own ideas. He was particularly astute in drawing people out and getting them to express their ideas and in trying to get his ideas over to them.
It wasn’t mentioned here, but Dick for a couple of years worked as an engineer at Weyerhaeuser in Seattle. Now you know he didn’t have a college degree or anything, but one of the people who worked with him, who was a doctor in physics at the University, said that he thought that Dick was the greatest engineer that he ever met. And I asked Dick, “How’d you get a reputation like that?”
Well, what happened is, if he ever had a problem or a puzzle, he would head straight for the University of Washington, talk to all the professors who were involved in that field, bring together all their knowledge, and then use it. This was a great talent. And he’d use that same talent, of course, as a Marxist thinker and a writer. In this respect he received, I would say, constant help from our Seattle branch and of many individual comrades in Los Angeles and throughout the country.
This may step on some people’s toes, but I have to say it anyway—he got almost no help from the official party to which he had devoted his entire life. Neither in the form of support for his ideas on black liberation, nor what would have been important for him as well, in the form of an honest confrontation of ideas. In 1957 when the Southern movement was first beginning to break out, and when his ideas were getting their first real test in life, we went to the ’57 convention of the Socialist Workers Party with a resolution and were answered, rather strangely, with a demand by the National Committee that we provide a vote of confidence in the National Committee in opposition to his resolution. I had never heard that before in the party.
Again in ’63, where we put together all of the experiences of the Southern movement, we came in with the resolution and for the first time in the history of the party, equal time was not provided to the opposition. There was an hour and a half given to the majority, a half hour given to Dick’s position and to our position, and the bulk of the discussion consisted of an organizational attack upon our branch. And finally in ’65 when we presented the document, it was called “Crisis and Leadership.” After it was all over we received instructions from the presidium not to discuss any of the political material presented, and transforming the conference into an active workers conference. Now there was in that no confrontation of ideas, no way that he could draw from any of that.
Fortunately, there were better places for him to develop his ideas and his inspiration. Dick took every opportunity that was offered to him to talk and discuss with revolutionary black leaders his ideas on revolutionary integration. Anybody who came to the Northwest got stuck, that is about what it came down to. Maybe there was one or two of us who would talk to them in the afternoon, but by the time it was over they were over at Dick’s for ten to twelve hours and all night long, discussing and talking. And I’m not talking just about this or this Joe, it didn’t matter to Dick who he talked to, but among the people who he caught were William Worthy, James Farmer, Gibson, Victoria Gray of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Robert Williams.
I can’t recall all that were there, but we had a session with Dick Gregory in which together we organized a whole meeting in the black community, of a very conservative black community, in support of the Southern struggle. Dick could talk with him. And these weren’t just little discussions, they were a complete confrontation of ideas, one to the other, in which he hoped to teach and he hoped to learn. And I don’t remember any of them ever being angry about having participated in it.
But I’ll tell you, visitors could escape with maybe ten or twelve hours of discussion. That wasn’t true of the rest of us in the branch. In Seattle we had a man named Waymon Ware. He was a young man then, of course. Waymon Ware was probably the leading person in the black movement in Seattle. He was also a member of our group. And Dick was constantly in conversation with Skip Ware. And his wife, who was not in our organization but was a leading community activist, also suffered, enjoyably, constant probing and discussions of her ideas.
And not only, and this may strike people as some kind of a violation of some myths about democratic centralism, but not only did he confront them with his ideas, but our document that was in preparation, called “Revolutionary Integration,” was carried by these people into the South for their discussion. The columns appeared in SNCC and in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. They were sent out so people could study them, to look at it, write back to him, so we could build up our resolution with people who were serious about our ideas.
But ideas alone do not make a Marxist movement, or a Marxist theory. You have to take your ideas and put them into life, to test them, to reformulate, so that you know your ideas are rooted solidly in Marxism at the same time that they deal with all of the newest and most modern developments in society. The Seattle branch of the Socialist Workers Party took every opportunity it could to participate in the black liberation movement. I’m not going to go into now what had happened before Dick came, but we were very active when he arrived. But in the ’60s we were already central to the whole organization of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were involved in the training of cadres, we helped send people down. In fact, one of the announcements we got from the South, from the people who were participating, was that the people from the Northwest were those best equipped mentally to participate in the struggle down there.
Incidentally, we also sent two people down from the Seattle branch, one our only Spartacist member, and I think you may know of that around here somewhere, who spent about six months at least in the South during that period. We didn’t discriminate in the branch, if different political opinions, if they were helping to build the organization. So that even those in the end who weren’t in the SWP and who went down to the South that were not in our organization came back with the experience that we provided them, with the knowledge we provided them, and added a new mass of experience for the development of our ideas for the next cadres that could go down and carry out the fight.
I’m going to tell you a little story. I don’t think anybody knows this here. But in 1964 for the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, my former wife Ann Krasnowsky took a carload, actually it was a van, of black women and SNCC leaders to the convention, with a resolution for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which condemned the whole racist role of the Democratic Party in the South, and called for the unseating of the Mississippi Democratic white delegation and the Alabama delegation. And I want to tell you, we were a little surprised when we heard over the radio that almost precisely the wording of his resolution was presented by the black caucus at that convention.
Now, this is just an inkling, I’m not going to go on too far, of the kinds of experience and work that went into the concepts that Dick presented and developed in our movement. The rejection of which I can say quite bluntly, since it involved the rejection really of the revolution in the United States, led very much to the degeneration of the organization that we built earlier, of the Socialist Workers Party.
And one last thing in conclusion. In the ’60s, I had a little talk with Jim Cannon. I’m just dropping names now. Actually, I didn’t know Jim that well, he was a different generation than mine. Actually it was something which I realize now was something that bothered me much more than it bothered him. But every time I came through Los Angeles, we’d have coffee, Ann and I, at his house, and have a little discussion for several hours with him and Rose [Karsner]. And this time he was sitting there and studying two books. One was a book by James Boggs, The American Revolution, and the other was Harrington’s The Other America. And he commented to us, “Why is it that two non-Marxist writers can write a brilliant analysis of what is going on in the United States in the nature of class relations, and even propose a political program, and the pages of our magazine, the Fourth International, are completely sterile?”
Well, it was a rhetorical question, but I decided I’d try to answer it anyway. And I said, well, if you really want to get original thinking in the SWP, you’re going to have to read the internal bulletins. And that was about the way it appeared to me. That many of the people who had been studying and thinking had been suppressed by what I considered a sort of a bureaucratic centralism, not democratic, in which people with all kinds of ideas found that they didn’t have a way to express their opinions. And I really think that that’s one of the great tragedies of the movement.
I have some optimism out of this whole meeting. I will say that I came down here a little depressed, and much of that is overcome already by the people here. But I think that the great tragedy really of the movement in the past is not just that we lost for a while, because we can win again. But the number of fine minds, fine thinking and the rest that have not found the way to express themselves, that got confined in this myth that everybody must hold the monolithic idea and not open criticism, and not think about things anymore. The party should be, an organization of the left should be an extra group that strengthens your ideas, that builds you, that makes you better able to deal with the class struggle as you go on.
It’s for that reason that I truly thank the people who organized this memorial, who are part of an organization with which I have had many differences, but then I can’t think of one that I didn’t have many differences with, if you want to get down to it. But at least for rescuing from extinction the work of one of the truly great Marxists and Trotskyists of our era, and for helping him to live and last as long as he was able, and to make new contributions in the struggle for which he lived. Thank you.
Statement of the Central Committee of the Spartacist League/Britain, section of the international Spartacist tendency [after May 1989 called the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist)]
We would like to add our salute to the memory of comrade Dick Fraser. A number of us had the honour of meeting comrade Fraser, which serves to underline our deep sense of loss. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. As Marxists and internationalists we deeply appreciate the work he did, in particular “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question.” This contribution is not narrowly confined to enunciating the crucial elements for black freedom in the United States through the programme of revolutionary integration. By clarifying a Marxist methodological approach, he aided us in building our international on a firm basis. Our capacity to address the national question and situations such as Ireland where the problem of interpenetrated peoples must be confronted owes a great deal to the Bolsheviks, but also to such contributions as comrade Dick’s.
Comrade Fraser already has an epitaph in his contributions, and we are sure that he, like any revolutionary, would feel his memory can best be honoured by carrying the work forward for world revolution.
Message of the Trotzkistische Liga Deutschlands [now the Spartakist Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands] and the Ligue Trotskyste de France, sections of the international Spartacist tendency
We share with you the loss of anti-racist fighter and historic American Trotskyist Richard Fraser. In January we also honor the “Three L’s,” Lenin, and Liebknecht and Luxemburg who were murdered 70 years ago this year. In so doing we pay tribute to all those, like Comrade Fraser, who died at their posts, fighting for a socialist future.
a friend and comrade of Dick’s who knew him for many years
Before I make a few remarks about Dick, I feel deeply constrained to make some related comments. Several years ago, Dick became befriended, very deeply and very meaningfully, by the comrades of the Spartacist League and especially, although not exclusively, those in their Los Angeles group. Without this help that they gave him, Dick would not have been able to have maintained his life, more or less normal, within the constraints of his physical condition, living in his own apartment with his library, his correspondence, his telephone and his word processor. They took him to the hospital, they took him back from the hospital. They provided medical consultation. They helped him with his household arrangements.
Finally, four days before he died, when he made his last trip home from the hospital, they provided a 24-hour-a-day, three-shift guard at his house, helping him with his feeding apparatus, helping him with the difficult life that he was living then in his last hours and last days. They did this with no hope or any intent of any profit, or any political gain. They did it because it was the honorable thing to do. And they did it with considerable difficulty. I don’t want to give away any trade secrets, but they’re not a large group in this town. And these people have other lives to live, they have jobs, they have family, and they have other responsibilities. But with total loyalty and total devotion, they performed these duties. And I just felt I had to express this here.
Dick Fraser was a musician, a merchant seaman, an aircraft worker, a lumber worker, pattern maker, plastic mold maker, working-class. He never had a middle-class job in his whole life. He made his living as a worker and no other way. But more, Dick was a restless organizer, an inveterate propagandist, a “boss-hater” in the Wobbly tradition, and still more. He was a socialist and a worker-scholar in the finest tradition. You study, you learn, and you teach.
He studied the Reformation, gave a series of lectures in Los Angeles. He studied the colonial period of American history, and gave a series of lectures, perceptive, revealing. How the Indians taught the colonists to survive, gave them not only the technology but the communal social organization which was necessary to the continuance of their existence. He went to Seattle, organized a branch. Went to the south side of Los Angeles, organized a branch.
He studied about the rise and fall of the slave power in the United States and about the Reconstruction period. And he asked the question, how did the race relations in the United States today originate? What was their connection with the slave system and its aftermath? The Old Man [Trotsky] said, if you don’t want to regard the issue of black liberation as a national question, then determine what it is. Dick struggled with that question. As before, he studied, then gave a series of lectures, in Los Angeles in 1953. The elaboration of this question became his life’s work. He codified his thoughts in the resolution “Revolutionary Integration” in 1963 in Seattle. His work on this question has been republished and forms the programmatic basis of the Spartacist League and other sections of the Trotskyist movement today.
In later years, Dick turned back to the history of the slave power and the struggle against slavery, and has authored a book, in the form of abstracts. He also authored his autobiography, mainly a study of his long struggle with cancer and the after effects of the debilitating surgery which he underwent. “How I Came to Love My Carcinoma” is a tale of dark humor, pathos and tragedy.
Dick was a speaker and an educator, first and foremost. And to have been handicapped in his speech was the cruelest of blows. But to the last day of his life Dick remained optimistic, fretting over his illness but planning the continuation of his work on slavery. As little as four days before he died, he was discussing these issues.
Well, there were other sides to Dick, personal sides, his undying love for his son Jonny, which he constantly expressed. The inventions, that by the patent laws of the United States were stolen by his employer, but were of considerable significance. His undying love of music and knowledge of it. You may not know it, he was even a little bit of a card player. We’ll reserve those topics for informal discussion. We are left with the memory of a worker, a rebel, a restless organizer, speaker, worker-scholar. And we have to say good-bye to our old friend. The world’s a poorer place without him.
Greetings to the memorial meeting from the Spartacist Group of Japan, dated 18 December 1988
We join you today in honoring the life of Richard S. Fraser, a “historic American Trotskyist” and a tenacious fighter for black liberation. Although few of us knew Comrade Fraser personally, we salute his years of struggle against the special oppression of blacks in North America and his unique contributions to a Marxist understanding of how to end it.
The black question is the question of the American revolution. Comrade Fraser’s historic 1955 document, “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question,” is a sharp refutation of black nationalism and all its variants in favor of revolutionary integrationism. This conception lives on today in our American comrades’ work to build Labor Black Leagues in the major urban centers. Our most recent victory in stopping a fascist provocation in Philadelphia on 5 November 1988 was a powerful display of the black and red social components that will lead the third American revolution.
Richard Fraser’s major work, centering on a Marxist perspective to end the vicious oppression of blacks in the U.S., has important ramifications internationally. Here in Japan, we seek to build a party that sees its workers revolution ending the centuries of women’s oppression as well as the institutionalized discrimination against Koreans, Chinese, Japan’s indigenous minorities, the Ainu and burakumin, and the Japanese bourgeoisie’s newest victims, immigrant labor from the Philippines and Southeast Asia.
Dick Fraser’s insistence that only a proletarian revolution can end the horrid plight of capitalism’s oppressed minorities is an important component of the international Spartacist tendency’s program today. From the other side of the Pacific we embrace our American comrades who have lost a “cherished friend and theoretical mentor.”
a comrade of the international Spartacist tendency who sent the following letter
Dear comrades and friends,
Like all of you, I was saddened to hear about Dick Fraser’s death. I am grateful that I knew Dick pretty well during the last years of his life. I first met Dick in a hospital room in Long Beach in 1981, but also spent a good deal of time with him when he was home and lucid as hell. I would often stop at Dick’s apartment on my way home from work when I lived in L.A. He lived near Hollywood Park and the horse races that he loved. It was here that I received an education on life in the SWP in the 1940s and ’50s. Trotskyist leaders, especially black leaders like C.L.R. James and Edgar Keemer, became far more than historical names.
The height of black recruitment to the American Trotskyist movement came during WWII when the Stalinists and social democrats betrayed the fight against Jim Crow. The SWP’s courageous stand for black civil rights during the war had a profound impact on Dick who lived through these events. When the SWP veered on a black nationalist course Dick fought hard against this anti-Marxist stance and this culminated in his historic 1955 document. Dick’s interest in this question was no idle intellectual venture but a life-long commitment to black liberation.
The Workers Vanguard article about Richard’s death importantly notes that his last political act was to endorse our Partisan Defense Committee rally to stop a KKK provocation in Philadelphia on November 5th. This is very special to me, as the day Dick endorsed our demonstration was also the last time I saw him alive. While weak and resting in bed, he was quite animated in his desire to get a full report on what was going on. He followed the events leading to the November 5th demonstration very carefully and in his last days the fire of class struggle still burned in his eyes. I had many disagreements with Dick over the years but our WV obituary underlined our bending the stick in the direction of our programmatic agreements. Dick’s endorsement of our November 5th demonstration in Philadelphia epitomizes this agreement and I’m glad Dick died with his boots on.
In closing, I have to commend my comrades and friends in L.A. who worked tirelessly to prolong this valuable communist’s life and I’m glad I could help this effort. I’m sorry I can’t be with you today and must pay my respects from afar. Dick’s exemplary struggle to overcome his debilitating physical ailments gives new meaning to the words courage and tenacity. Dick was a communist to the end and I’m going to miss his sense of humor and zest for life. He was my friend and I’ll never forget him.
National Chairman of the Spartacist League of the U.S.
Like comrade Frank Krasnowsky, I, too, would be happy to take about 30 minutes on the technicalities of the decomposition of the SWP until it ends up as a Barnesite organization. But I, too, am bound by the ten-minute limit.
I first ran into Dick Fraser about 31 years ago, and he was my last personal teacher. Frank has mentioned what happened in Seattle when you got around Dick Fraser. Well, I stayed at his house, so I got it day and night!
But it came at just the right time, because our theoretical mentors, the both of us, he of an earlier generation than me, had been formed out of the arguments that C.L.R. James, Jimmy Johnson that is, and E.R. McKinney had been having in the SWP and in the Shachtman Workers Party then. I could not understand how black nationalism could be analogous with a European national oppressed minority. And having broken with the Shachtmanites, and even before that, I knew that there was something terribly wrong, simply looking at the history and reality of American social relations, with the idea that a kind of militant reformism was going to eliminate the race question in America.
So I was really quite ready to run into comrade Fraser’s presentation and historical foundation, that one can achieve the abolition of racial division in this country only through a profound, pervasive, far-going social revolution in which the working class comes to power. So I walked away quite thoroughly recruited. And with some, I think, continuing personal affection throughout the rest of those years between us.
This led me to think in preparing to talk here today, why Fraser? I can offer some elements, but I also have a suggestion, because it’s rather soon and we only have some of his papers available. Perhaps on the first anniversary of his death we could have a symposium on his central political thought, its development, in the context of his life and his work. I will offer a few ideas about how it is that this particular man in a given set of circumstances could make what I consider to be a fundamental contribution to the program of Marxism, growing out of the particularities of the American racial relations rather than national relations.
I don’t think that comrade Fraser could have done this work if he hadn’t been a Trotskyist. Because if his head had been filled with ideas of “socialism in one country,” or support for bourgeois political formations, which were characteristic of the other socialist groups, it would not have been possible. In a striking way, C.L.R. James had a great influence when he arrived in the United States in 1939, evoking also a reaction and a certain paralysis, theoretically, on the part of the SWP.
Then Fraser spent four or five years in the National Maritime Union. The SWP’s cadres were concentrated in the Sailors Union of the Pacific [SUP], which was completely racially exclusionary, unlike the National Maritime Union. And yet Dick was very prominent in the NMU. This contrast in the work of the two fractions obviously had to be a source of stimulation and thought.
Finally, I believe that he was a genuine native genius. And I think that somewhere in this matrix you will find the start of the process that took several years to percolate and really only came into fully rounded form in the early ’50s. By the later ’50s, beginning with the Little Rock crisis, when Eisenhower sent the troops to the South and the SWP said, Hail the American troops to the South, they’re going to be the saviors—already a major political departure—I think that the first theoretical verification of Fraser’s views had been obtained.
A few other remarks. Dick Fraser is supposed to have said, “One of the best things I ever did in my life was sit Jim Robertson down at a kitchen table and pound at him for a few nights.” Well, it’s funny, because I’d just said, across the country at the same time, “The last guy that ever convinced me of anything in an argument was Dick Fraser.” That does not mean that program is finished. There’s an exchange between Cannon and Shachtman to that effect. Cannon is supposed to have said, “We have a finished program,” and Shachtman said, “Yeah, it’s finished.”
I believe that through time that program must change and develop, even though I believe that very little that is fundamental can change within the framework of capitalism since it took its essential shape in 1848. But I believe that comrade Fraser is one of those who found a particular set of conditions in the North American continent and made a Marxian, materialist analysis of it.
I would also like to note that comrade Fraser received, on arriving in L.A. after Seattle, in a pretty battle-fatigued condition, a great deal of fellowship from the NAM (New American Movement), later the DSA, and especially from Dorothy Healey, who helped him a great deal. And I believe that this understandably slowed down his approchement with the SL, although we had been in loose association with many disagreements for a long time, comrade Fraser even having attended our founding conference in 1966. See, I could take off now about the SWP, Tom Kerry and those guys and what they did, but I really don’t have time for that.
Most of my other few remarks have already been picked up by others. I think that comrade Fraser found a great deal of satisfaction in offering guidance and advice, especially with the Labor Black Leagues sprouting around the country, and with our members and the younger comrades in general. All the rest of my notes are more of that polemical stuff that I think is historically important, but not now.
Finally, I would like to thank those who have prepared this memorial, who worked very hard and very well, and also the materials that have gone into the memorial display. A very good thing.
a comrade of Dick’s who worked with him in the SWP and its maritime work and, later, on Revolutionary Age
The first time I met Dick Fraser was in 1941, when I got to the coast again to try to ship out. Later on, on the East Coast, we—that is, Dick, I and many other Trotskyists—participated in a great general strike in maritime of 1946.
The Seafarers International Union objected to the buck-passing of the ship owners and the War Shipping Administration. This time the former, that is the ship owners, wanted to give in to postwar contractual improvement demands, but the latter, the War Shipping Administration, played hard cop.
The Manhattan Center meeting hall of the general strike committee of all the unions involved was decorated with huge banners, spread right across the damn hall, to greet the sailors and others from up and down the coast participating in this meeting. The banners said, “An injury to one is an injury to all! United we stand, divided we fall!” And another one, “For collective bargaining and against government interference!”
The strike of AF of L unions was general, all right, pulling the pin with the seamen and their unions, the longies—the longshoremen—tugboat, all maritime trades, and railroad men, and the Teamsters too. That coast was bottled up, particularly the island of Manhattan. At that time some of the sailors around said, boy, this is a revolutionary situation! Well, many of us thought, we don’t know if we’re going to take over the government like the days of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik October. But what we wanted to do, and what we did, and what was achieved, was to give the War Shipping Administration, the government’s outfit, a swift kick in the ass.
The ILA [International Longshoremen’s Association], Marine Firemen and SUP held the fort in the Pacific ports. The CIO unions, like the NMU, followed later, radical socialists of the rank and file, urging towards the Debs and Wobblyite ideal of revolution. And make no mistake, that was led by Trotskyists, such as Dick Fraser and like-minded rank-and-file Bolsheviks. And to carry—I think I got one in my pocket somewhere, that I dug up since I learned about this meeting—to carry that strike clearance card, the general strike clearance of 1946. I carried two of them, one from the CIO because we went, a lot of comrades went, after the AF of L was out on strike, went out to support in solidarity with the CIO unions. So Dick and I were a part of that scene, and I wanted to mention this as one of the big achievements of the Trotskyists’ maritime fraction, comrades like Dick.
Later on, on the West Coast, Dick and Arne Swabeck, my father, collaborated in the struggle for a revolutionary workers party of the working class. We had our disagreements. I remember I had one with Dick about shipping, it was about how best to operate a ship, run an old liberty ship without popping the boilers and throwing the safety valves all over the place, while running the U-boat wolf packs down in the torpedo junction. Well, there were others. They were all settled through democratic centralism, as good comrades should. And I say this, that his passing therefore is to be deeply regretted.
I want to say one other thing. When Dick came around to the house a couple of times, I was playing music. And he says, “Damn it, have you got that stuff by that guy that plays ‘The Lemon Tree’?” I say, “Oh, you mean Herb Alpert?” He says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, with that ‘Tijuana Taxi’ and so forth.” And I said “Sure, I’ll play it.” And he liked that. I don’t know if he liked the music that we were playing before, that Brahms thing or I don’t know what, sort of sleepy funereal kind of stuff. I know damn well he liked a rousing singing of the Internationale! The red, Bolshevik Internationale!
The memorial meeting concluded with the singing of the Internationale.